Player of the year watch: Buffaloes' Taylor Kornieck bullish on her future in the midfield

Courtesy Mike Greening

Junior Taylor Kornieck had three assists in Colorado's Pac-12 opener against Oregon State.

Each week during the soccer season, we'll recognize a player whose recent performances reinforce her place among the best in the nation. Consider it our way to check in on, or in some cases introduce, the personalities who will shape the race for espnW player of the year.

The math is simple for Taylor Kornieck. As long as the University of Colorado junior keeps creating goals at one end of the field, people are less likely to wonder how many goals she might prevent at the other end.

And at the moment, no one in NCAA women's soccer is creating goals at quite such a blistering pace.

Returning last week after missing four games with an ankle injury, Kornieck assisted on three goals in Colorado's 6-0 rout at Oregon State. Three assists marks an impressive performance regardless of context, but Kornieck accumulated her hat trick of helpers in 33 minutes on the field. Out of thousands of Division I players, fewer than 200 began this week with more than three assists for the entire season, which is more than a month old.

Kornieck got three in the length of a sitcom.

So much for rust. Kornieck said she knew her time on the field would be limited, even before Colorado opened up a lead that allowed all of its starters to rest. She worked with what she had.

"I just felt like I needed to get some points with the minimal time I was playing, so I was pretty happy about that," Kornieck said. "I knew that I didn't have a lot of chances, so I had to make the most of what I got."

During her time that was spread across roughly equal shifts in each half, Kornieck displayed the full array of midfield skills.

As would seem predictable for a player who stands 6-foot-1, her first assist came off her head -- but not without ample skill. Aware that teammate Jorian Baucom was behind her and even with the last Oregon State defender on a long goal kick that reached the attacking half of the field, Kornieck leapt, held off an aerial challenge and drove the headed ball into the open space ahead of Baucom.

Baucom did her part and more, taking the ball on two bounces and chipping the goalkeeper from 19 yards, but Kornieck's understanding of space and her teammate's strengths turned a 50-50 ball into a goal.

Height didn't help on Kornieck's next two assists -- they were the product of hard work and hard tackles. On her final assist, which made the score 4-0 early in the second half and effectively ended the workday for Colorado's potent front line, Kornieck freed the ball with an initial challenge at midfield, chased it down 10 yards down the field and simultaneously tackled it away from an Oregon State player and again into the path of her best friend, Baucom.

It didn't last long, but it was a display of how much one player can control a field without ever putting the ball in the back of the net herself. Kornieck can score goals, mind you. She had 11 as a freshman and seven more a season ago. But with Baucom eligible as a transfer from LSU and junior Tatum Barton coming into her own as a finisher for a team that still hasn't lost this season, Kornieck has taken on the playmaking responsibilities.

She's taken them on so well that she already has more assists than her first two seasons combined. In fact, she is tied for the national lead despite missing those four games and playing limited minutes against both Oregon State and Iowa State in the game in which she was injured.

On the watch list for the Hermann Trophy when the season began, she is showing an all-around game -- aerial work and tackling included -- that would impress even the players she most admires.

"As much as it's a cliche, I think Carli Lloyd is a big role model to me," Kornieck said. "She's really dynamic in how she moves, and she's very quick in her decision making. I feel like she's right there with me [as a model for play]. I tend to watch her a lot and whatever she does I just try to mimic."

But as much as footwork and tricks, Lloyd would recognize a kindred spirit in stubbornness.

With that height and agility, Kornieck makes a tempting prospect as a center back in the mold of French superstar Wendie Renard -- able to control the air but skilled enough to build the attack with the ball at her feet. So it's no surprise that Kornieck encountered many coaches in her time with youth national teams eager to try that conversion. Far more eager than she was.

"Going through the national team, they always tried to push me to center back," Kornieck said. "But it just wasn't in me to play center back. I feel in my head like I'm a goal scorer, I'm a playmaker up top. [Colorado coach] Danny Sanchez was the first coach that I got recruited by. ... That's one of the reasons I came to CU ... he believed in me."

She may yet face decisions about what opportunities she's willing to sacrifice at the professional or international levels in order to adhere to that belief. Or perhaps because of her role in a Colorado offense that's second in the nation in scoring, she may stop those questions before they're asked. Lloyd, after all, built a legendary and still ongoing career on the foundation of proving doubters wrong.

There are worse players to mimic.

"I consider myself a pretty unselfish player," Kornieck said. "I get joy playing that final ball for them to score because I know it was part of my decision making to help them score the goal. So I get joy watching my teammates score."

As long as she isn't too far away when the ball goes in the back of the net.

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