Soccer is a game played almost entirely at your feet, yet Hailey Zerbel's hands might be her most lethal weapon on the field. Her stature doesn't lend itself to being positioned in the penalty box on set pieces. Still, her flip throw makes her one of Mississippi State's biggest threats in the final third of the pitch.
From the time she was in sixth grade, coaches and teammates alike have echoed a similar sentiment when it comes to the Bulldogs' senior defender.
"If they're in the final third, Zerbel's going to take the throw," she relayed to NCAA.com.
Specifically, flip throws.
At this point, you might be wondering, 'What is a flip throw?' Excellent question!
To start, imagine performing a somersault. Now, instead of a cushioned surface, the ground is the base of the movement and the primary balancing tool isn't your hands, but rather a round, uneven ball. The momentum generated from the somersault is transferred into launching a soccer ball more than 40 yards while successfully landing feet first. Here’s how Illinois defender Alicia Barker does it:
Primarily done close to an opposing team's goal, the flip-throw is perfect for positioning advantages and scoring opportunities. The ball travels significantly farther than a regular throw-in and forces defenses to become congested in and around the 18-yard box.
The flip came naturally to Zerbel. Her background in soccer and gymnastics motivated her to learn what's become a defining characteristic of her skillset. Nothing deterred her from mastering the tactic. She had to convince her parents, of course, and overcome a few failed attempts.
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Zerbel still remembers the facial expression of her coach following her first demonstration. His mouth was wide open. His face remained still with disbelief. It wasn't too far off from the reactions she received after executing her first live flip-throw a few weeks later.
During Mississippi State's 2018 match against Alabama. Zerbel had three assists in the Bulldogs' win over Alabama, two of which came off of the flip — the first points of her collegiate career.
We were flipping out in October when @herbiezerbie became the first Bulldog to record 3⃣ assists in an @SEC game. Take a look back at all three goals she had a hand in scoring as the Dawgs cruised to a 5-2 victory over Alabama.#HailState🐶 pic.twitter.com/Lx99Q2KNgl— Mississippi State Soccer (@HailStateSOC) April 8, 2019
"I like to think that's something personal to me that it's very unique and nobody else can do it," Zerbel told NCAA.com. "That's one thing that I think makes me stick out. As a defender, you don't get to score goals very often."
Illinois defender Alicia Barker has a similar gymnastics background, but her path to the flip throw was a bit more drawn out.
Barker became aware of the flip throw when she was 11, learning about it from an assistant coach on her club team. Like Zerbel, the flip was a natural motion given her gymnastics experience. Learning to balance was a more methodical process.
Her learning curve took most of a summer as she became comfortable with balancing the ball in addition to understanding release points and timing.
"I actually started with a deflated ball. I deflated it to probably like halfway so it didn't roll around as much," Barker told NCAA.com. "I just would pump it up a little more and a little more until I could get all the way around.
"I think the biggest thing about it is once you do it once, you kind of just know how to do it. After that muscle memory, it's almost like riding a bike."
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That muscle memory was on full display during Barker's sophomore season. She recorded two assists in a game against Washington, the second coming by way of the flip-throw.
Central defenders are typically the furthest away from an opposing goal. The introduction of a flip throw allows teams to push defenders further upfield and pressure the opposition, another tactic to incorporate defenders into a general game plan.
"It's something unique that the other team has to think about," Barker said.