COLUMBIA — Halloween is universally seen as an excuse to dress in silly costumes, and the Columbia College women's soccer team was no exception. At practice that day, some players wore brightly colored socks or tiny devil horns. All of their costumes were subtle, except for one.
Coach John Klein said he had never seen anything like it in his 13 years at Columbia College.
Freshman forward Kelly Ross came to practice in a full cat costume, complete with gold leopard print leggings, whiskers, cat ears and a tail. Despite the added accessories, Ross still played with the same tenacity she usually practices with, calling for passes and physically winning balls from the defense. The only interference the costume provided was that she had to take her ears off to receive corner kicks.
The costume comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Ross off the field. Ross' teammate, freshman midfielder Taylor Goddard, describes Ross as "spontaneous and not one to say no."
"She's always singing and dancing or quoting movies," Goddard said. "She likes being the entertainment, there's never a dull moment around Kelly."
One movie Ross quotes frequently is "Remember the Titans," which she uses to fire up the team before games. Ross is the motivator for the team in the pregame huddle, chanting and smacking people on the back. Borrowing the words of Julius Campbell, a character from the movie, Ross asks the other players in the huddle, "How strong are you?" to which they reply, "Too strong."
Ross has excelled at motivating her team, and the results have come through both for the team and Ross individually. The Cougars finished the regular season 9-9, 6-2 in conference play and earned a bye into the semifinals of the American Midwest Conference tournament. Ross leads the team in scoring with 13 goals and 10 assists on the year.
Ross is more than just a soccer player and a motivational speaker though. Her goal is to one day be a teacher in special education, something she is already working toward at Columbia College. In addition to taking classes during the school year, she will enroll in Columbia College's DAYSTAR program over the summer, which will give her a Master of Arts in Teaching just by taking four years of summer classes in addition to working toward an undergraduate degree in psychology during the school year.
Her interest in special education was sparked by figures in her personal life. In second grade, one of her friends at school was confined to a wheelchair and was non-verbal. Ross said that the way she was supported and loved by her classmates was inspirational to her.
A few years ago, her interest came closer to home when her five-year-old twin cousins were diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy. One twin also has brain problems from being born prematurely, while the other has a hole in his heart. Ross said that her cousins have brought her family closer together and has taught her not to take the little things in life for granted.
"It's refreshing to see how much happiness they take out of the littlest things," Ross said. "They've taught me something no one else can teach me, and I'd do anything for them."
Ross has already gotten some experience in the field of teaching special education, including student teaching for a year in high school. Rather than choosing her favorite teacher to learn under, she elected to go with what she knew she wanted to do. She worked in the special education room at her high school in Moberly, spending time with the kids and helping their day be a little easier.
She also spends 1 1/2 to three hours at Gentry Middle School three times a week, depending on her schedule, as a student aide in the special education department. She serves as a guide to the students, ages 11-14, answering any questions and helping them complete the day's work.
Christi Brietzke, a resource specialist in the special education department at Gentry, said she is impressed with Ross' willingness to work with the kids and her relationship with the students.
"The kids really like her, they're always thrilled to have a pretty young girl in their classroom," Brietzke said. "Kelly interacts with them very well, she is patient, calm and isn't put off by appearances."
One boy in the class who suffers from a disability that severely impacts his vision stands out to Ross. He has to use textbooks with extra large print and a specialized computer that projects what the teacher writes on the board onto a screen in front of him to make it easier for him to read.
"He's almost completely blind, but at the same time he's a fluent reader and can comprehend what he reads," Ross said. "The disabilities in the classroom are so broad; it's nice to be around them every day and learn what they're struggling with."
While special education is likely in her future, Ross has another passion which she has pursued through school. She took art classes all through high school and has plans to take them again at Columbia College in the spring semester. The walls in her room are covered with artwork she's done, mostly in charcoal or oil painting mediums. Her favorite piece, a black and white sunflower drawn in charcoal with a bright yellow background, hangs by her bed.
Ross could be described as an artist on the soccer field as well. She leads the team in scoring and led the team during a six-game winning streak in the middle of the season, scoring 12 goals, including three hat tricks, during the streak.
Ross started playing soccer because of her father's influence and involvement in the game. Her father, originally from California, never played in high school or college, but Ross said that he knows the game more than anyone she knew growing up.
"He plays father and coach roles in my life, I'd always get extra coaching from him in the car after games," Ross said. "He's my soccer idol, and he's shaped both how I play the game and who I am as a person."
Klein describes Ross as a powerful and physical player with explosive speed, and she has emerged as the primary scoring threat for the Cougars in her freshman season. Klein said that if she can play at a high level against the better teams on Columbia College's schedule, there's room to improve immensely.
"There's still room for her to refine her game and better understand attacking the goal," Klein said. "She has the potential to be a dominant scorer in the NAIA in the future."
Ross will have an opportunity to face some top teams as the Cougars move into the American Midwest Conference tournament where they will host Hannibal-LaGrange at 7 p.m. Monday at R. Marvin Owens Soccer Stadium. The Cougars defeated Hannibal-LaGrange 3-0 in their Oct. 3 meeting. If they win, they advance to the AMC finals on Thursday where they would face the winner of the game between Park and William Woods.
"Playing our game is the key to everything," Ross said. "We can beat anybody if everyone plays their best and we do it for 90 minutes."