The 5’9″ spark plug

by Brock Borgeson, sports editor

The phrase, ‘the best things come in the smallest packages’ has been thrown around in a lot of arenas, whether it is in sports, food, or a person’s physical appearance.

It’s a saying that is commonly used but often not accepted, except for the likes of the Nate Robinson’s of the world. The Simpson College men’s soccer team also has an exception to this rule. It’s in junior midfielder Marcus Varnum, who although he sits at 5’ 9” 135 lbs., has not only established himself as a standout for the Storm, but a force known across the IIAC.

Varnum was a valued commodity for Iowa’s field of Division III colleges when he came out of Ankeny High School in 2012. Varnum had earned four varsity letters for the Hawks and back-to-back 1st-team all conference honors from the Des Moines Register over his junior and senior year, all the while setting the Ankeny single season assists record at 19.

Although playing ball at Iowa State was the dream for the junior, Varnum knew that even if he wasn’t playing for the Cyclones up in Ames, he would be playing college soccer one way or another.

Conveniently for the Storm soccer program, current Storm men’s soccer head coach, Rick Isaacson, was able to get a couple years scouting Varnum while coaching him at Ankeny.

Isaacson served for six years as head coach for the Hawks, leading them to a stellar 110-25 record, a state championship in 2007, and a slew of coaching awards. Through this time, Isaacson was able to see Varnum develop over four years, a familiarity and relationship that shifted the recruiting tides in the IIAC.

“Having Rick as my high school coach was huge in bringing me to Simpson,” said Varnum. “My junior year I heard he was leaving to come to Simpson. Then I heard a couple of my club teammates, Josh Dicken, Cody Jacobson, and Tyler Neumann were coming to Simpson, and that’s when I knew I was coming to Simpson.”

Coach Isaacson ensured Varnum that he’d earn immediate playing time, although Varnum didn’t know what type of minutes he’d be earning.

As it is for many freshman, the college game was a lot faster than what he’d been seeing at Ankeny in the Central Iowa Metro League. Varnum distinctly remembers a game against Grinnell his freshman year that acted as a kick in the pants.

“It was my first start and I played really poorly,” said Varnum. “Rick and I realized that I couldn’t keep playing like that. I had to get better and really had to lock it down. That was my biggest memory.”

Since then Varnum has started all 57 games Simpson has played in, compiling 14 goals, 40 points, and four game winning goals during that time span. Varnum followed up with a 1st Team All-IIAC performance in his sophomore season.

So far in 2014, Varnum finds himself in the top 10 in the IIAC in six statistical categories, racking up four goals, four assists and one game winner, coming in a 2-1 win over Division II Upper Iowa, in which Varnum scored both goals for the Storm. His contributions have helped Simpson earn a 10-6 record heading into last week’s weekend matchup with Loras College.

“Marcus is a special player,” said head coach Rick Isaacson. “He’s the player on the team that is on the opposition’s scouting report every time. We go as Marcus goes.”

Being a double major in pre-engineering and management, Varnum knows the value of hard work, commitment, and accountability, all of which his teammates feed off of.

“He keeps himself and the team accountable,” said junior defenseman Kyle Jensen. “Yet, he doesn’t get on you. He is always working hard and doesn’t give up. I’ve never seen a moment where he just gives up the game when we’ve been down.”

Although Varnum gives the fastest 40-yard dash time award on the team to Jacobson, there is no denying Varnum’s explosiveness. Many times he’s shown the ability to streak past defenses into the final third of the field, one of the qualities that has allowed Varnum to be so effective in setting up teammates for scores.

“What makes him [Varnum] special is his ability on the ball, his ability to change directions, change speeds, and he’s a very technical and gifted player,” said Isaacson. “Marcus is behind a lot of what happens in the attacking third of the field, whether it’s the actual goal that is scored or on the assist.”

Varnum gets a lot of opportunities setting up his teammates through fielding the corner kicking duties for the Storm. Varnum likes to say that his stature got him pegged with this role, but Isaacson clearly likes seeing the junior bending the ball into the box, a role Isaacson gave him at Ankeny.

It always hasn’t been so easy for Varnum to give up the ball to teammates, something natural attackers like Varnum, who is second in the conference in shots taken, have to step back and do from time to time.

“When I was younger and I didn’t get the ball at my feet, I would be clicking my fingers at the side, and would keep snapping them until I got the ball,” said Varnum with a chuckle. “I worked on that and have slowly outgrew that.”

While this nervous tick is a thing of the past for Varnum, it isn’t the only quirk Varnum has brought to the field with him.

“About half the team knows him as the guy who is just amazing with movie quotes,” said Jensen. “He has so many lines memorized that he can practically carry on a conversation through movie quotes with you. It’s impressive.”

Hopefully Varnum can inject some of this humor and character into the Storm men’s soccer squad as they head into a crucial three game stretch to close out regular season play, beginning with Coe College in Cedar Rapids this Saturday.

Simpson has ensured at least a .500 record on the year but will have to finish the regular season strong to secure a spot in the six-team IIAC Tournament.