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East senior at center of action

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Late in the first half of Wednesday’s season opener against Bloomington North, a loose ball bounced to Kristen Bellinger in front of the goal.

The Columbus East senior fired a shot with such force that, had it hit the Cougar goalkeeper, it would likely have knocked her over and back into the goal. Instead, the ball sailed just over the crossbar, much to the relief of Bloomington North and its keeper.

Bellinger can be forgiven for that missed opportunity in the Olympians’ 4-0 victory. After all, she didn’t have a chance to take many shots her first three years of high school, much less from point-blank range.

“It’s definitely a new experience for me, and I really enjoy it,” Bellinger said. “It’s going to take some calming down because I get really excited when I get the ball.”

After three years of playing an outside back position, Bellinger has moved to the center midfield for her senior year. East had a big hole to fill there following the graduation of All-State selection and The Republic Athlete of the Year for Girls Soccer Sydney Newell.

“Kris is a fantastic player,” East coach Ilya Schwartzman said. “She can play any position on the field. She can finish. She can distribute. She can defend, as she’s proven year in and year out.

“She’s going to be a huge part of the team success this year,” he said. “A lot of the plan is to go through her on the defensive end and the offensive end. She’s going to be a busy player on the field.”

And that’s just fine with Bellinger, who did manage a pair of assists in that season-opening win.

“I enjoy both positions, but I really enjoy getting the opportunity to play center mid,” Bellinger said.

Schwartzman considered moving Bellinger to center back for this season before settling on the center midfield destination.

“I spent a lot of our offseason trying to think through what our best combinations might be,” Schwartzman said. “We were trying to find the best 11 to put on the field at any given time, so we had several players who really stepped up, and we felt comfortable relying on them in certain positions.”

“It’s been a big adjustment,” Bellinger said. “I actually began playing there this summer for my club team, so I’ve gotten a little practice and experience there. It’s been fun, and I look forward to playing there this season.”

Toward end of club season, coach moved her from outside back to center mid.

Bellinger has been playing club soccer for St. Francis Lady Blues out of Indianapolis. She plans to play for Indiana Fire Juniors starting in January.

“My (club) coach said that I have the ability to be an offensive- and defensive-minded player, so he thought I could be effective in the middle,” Bellinger said. “Getting experience in the club has helped me now in high school.”

After playing varsity basketball as a freshman and sophomore, Bellinger gave up that sport since she committed to play soccer at Grace College.

“I realized it was time for me to focus on soccer and become prepared to play at that competitive level,” Bellinger said.

Bellinger committed to Grace at beginning of her sophomore year and signed with the NAIA school toward end of that year.

“It started with how Grace fit me academically,” Bellinger said. “I would like to be a chiropractor, and I can get my undergrad in three years with a master’s in the fourth because they have an accelerated program. When I found out that they have a soccer team and that they’re very competitive, I would get the best of both worlds and have the academic and athletic benefits.”

Although she could likely garner scholarship offers from bigger schools now, Bellinger is content with her decision to attend Grace.

“I looked into Division I, but I don’t think it was for me,” Bellinger said. “I want to really focus on my academics and be able to play soccer because it’s my love.”

Bellinger is hoping for a more healthy senior season than she had last year. She missed about half of last season with a right hamstring injury, but did return in the postseason to help the Olympians to sectional and regional titles.

This summer, Bellinger has had problems with both hamstrings because of overuse, but was able to get some rest before the start of the high school season.

“We’re starting to do some strength and exercises, and it’s definitely helped me get back on the field and stay healthy,” Bellinger said.

Bellinger is one of the captains for this year’s East team, along with fellow senior Kayla Halterman.

“It was very humbling to be nominated as the team’s captain, and I’m very thankful for the responsibility,” Bellinger said. “I’ve had to step up a few times, but I’m thankful for the team giving me the opportunity.

I enjoy being a leader for the team.”

East is 1-1 folllowing Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Mooresville.

“We’re trying to get everybody on the team involved and do the best we can,” Bellinger said. “We definitely want to win our conference, and we’re looking to make it out of sectional and hopefully make a move onto state this year.”

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