'Eaters' 'secret' weapon

Judy Christopher's excellence on the field speaks for itself, though usually in gruff, muffled tones that those who are not soccer aficionados need to listen very intently to hear.

And while the UC Irvine senior is used to making headlines more with postseason honors than eye-catching statistics, she long ago learned to embrace the low profile that swallows up even the most conspicuous defensive midfielders.

"You basically do the dirty work," said Christopher, whose penchant for getting down and dirty can clearly be seen on her all-white home uniform.

She may, in fact, lead the nation in grass stains.

"I obviously slide tackle a lot," said the two-time first-team All-Big West Conference performer who added second-team All-West Region honors while helping lead the Anteaters to the program's first Big West title and a trip to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2010. "I always like to get that first tackle in early, just to be like 'This is how it's going to be all game and [the opposing attacker] is not going to have fun.'"

Christopher has the most fun when she's making opponents miserable, a feat she manages to accomplish almost without fail. She does this despite battling smaller, more athletic attackers who would easily beat Christopher in a foot race longer than five yards.

"Judy is not dynamically quick, but she covers more ground during a game than most players," said UCI Coach Scott Juniper, who may be Christopher's most enthusiastic fan. "All of the teams we play against, we pick out their leading producer of assists and that is pretty much the player we assign Judy to mark. Last season, those players had a total of zero goals and zero assists. That [contribution] is not recognized in the traditional statistics, but in that role, I have not seen a better player across the country than Judy."

Clearly what Christopher lacks in explosive bursts, she makes up for in determined devotion to her defensive duties.

"She's ruthless in a tackle and her work rate is exceptional," Juniper said of Christopher, who has four assists this season to help UCI build a 9-2-3 record, (2-1-1 in conference), heading into Friday's 7 p.m. Big West clash at Cal State Fullerton. The 'Eaters play host to conference-leading and No. 22-ranked Long Beach State on Sunday at 6 p.m.

"She looks tired in the first few minutes of the game, but she plays the same way in double-overtime and she'll still be there," Juniper said. "I have new assistant coaches who often mention 'Hey, it looks like we need to give Judy a break.' But I'll say 'Just let her play through it and she'll be fine.'"

To gauge her zeal for contact, Christopher speculated that if she did not have soccer to satisfy her cravings for competition, she might try kick boxing.

"I'm very physical and aggressive and, typically, offensive midfielders are technical players who are small and quick," said Christopher, who has five goals and 10 assists in a four-year career that includes 48 victories. "Usually, technical players don't like physical play and I use that to my advantage, to the point where they don't want the ball. I take great pride in defending, because I believe that if we don't get scored on, we don't lose. And I have the mentality that I hate losing."

Though her competitiveness and passion for doing things correctly makes her, she admits, a "bad cop" among teammates at times, Juniper said the respect Christopher earns with her play, as well as her bubbly personality, help make her a natural as one of his three captains.

"She's looked up to by the players," Juniper said. "If you watch a game, you see her ruthless, aggressive side. But there's a very soft side there as well. She's very close to her family and her parents and she has great connections in our locker room. She's a player who cares about her teammates and she's an outstanding young lady."

Juniper created a team Midfielder of the Year award last season to recognize Christopher's contribution to a 19-3-2 campaign. With Christopher anchoring the defensive midfield the past three seasons, UCI is 40-13-6, a .729 winning percentage.

While Christopher is often overlooked by those outside the program, she said her teammates and coaches remind her often of her value to the team.

"I love what I do and I wouldn't trade it for the stats and the goals, because I know what I do is important," Christopher said. "It just doesn't get recognized by everyone and that's fine with me."

barry.faulkner@latimes.com

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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