Aloha, Alabama for Soccer Star
By Grant Martin
Alabama is beautiful, but can it compete with the surf and sand of a Pacific island? That was the fear of UAB soccer coach Paul Harbin when he decided to take a chance recruiting Marie Yempuku, a star defender from Honolulu, Hawaii. “Any time you recruit a high-school player from so far away, you’re taking a risk,” says Harbin. “Marie exemplifies a lot of what you think about when you think of island culture. She loves the beaches, and she loves to surf, so we worried about how she would adapt when she moved away from all of that.”
Yempuku admits that she does miss the island lifestyle—especially the surfing—but luckily for Harbin and UAB, soccer was always her first priority. “My sisters and I surfed a lot on weekends, but soccer took up most of my time,” Yempuku says. “I have always traveled, so I knew that I wanted to go somewhere different for college. I was looking primarily for schools on the East Coast. I didn’t know anything about the state of Alabama until I heard that UAB was looking at me.”
Harbin says he found out about Yempuku late in the recruiting process through a coaching acquaintance on the West Coast. “I told him we were looking for a good defender who could come in and contribute immediately,” says Harbin. “When he told me about Marie, I quizzed him about her to make sure she would make a good fit here. Things couldn’t have worked out better.”
Yempuku started all 19 games at midfield as a true freshman and earned the 2007 Coaches Award for overall achievement on and off the field. This year, she has been selected by her teammates as one of three team captains—and she is playing alongside fellow Hawaiian Ashley Park, a goalkeeper who sat out last season as a redshirt freshman.
“Ashley and I had played against each other before, but we didn’t know each other until we got to UAB,” Yempuku says. “The culture we come from is very different, with a lot of island and Asian influences, so it’s nice to have someone around who has that same background.”
Despite the cultural differences, Yempuku says she quickly learned to appreciate her new surroundings. “People come from all over the world to Hawaii, you see all kinds of people and cultures, and you learn to approach things with an open mind,” she says. “I had some preconceived ideas based on what I had heard about Alabama, but when I talked to Coach Harbin the first time, he told me more about what things are really like. The first time I came for a campus visit, I realized that this was a place I would enjoy.”