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Kayla Armstrong Named The Gazette's 2013 Female AOY

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From the start, Kayla Armstrong could draw a soccer ball toward a net in magnetic fashion.

"Her first year of playing, she was a natural," said her mother Angie Kramer. "They played those three-on-three (recreation) games, and her coach would let her go.

"Sometimes she would score 18 or 20 goals. It was kind of embarrassing. I wanted to tell her maybe to slow down a little."

Yeah, like that was going to happen.

Always a relentless figure and a prolific scorer on the soccer field, Armstrong channeled that aggression onto the basketball court during a magical run last March. It netted a state championship, one that joined four titles for the Cedar Rapids Xavier athlete in soccer.

Sunday, The Gazette honors Armstrong as its 2013 Female Athlete of the Year.

"Some kids shy away from the big stage, but others shine brightest under the bright lights. Kayla is one of those kids," said Xavier coach Tom Lilly. "The bigger the pressure, the more her skills come out."

Armstrong's senior basketball season was solid, but unspectacular. That is, until Armstrong and the Saints arrived at Wells Fargo Arena.

An 8-point-per-game performer for a team that invaded Des Moines with a 14-9 record, Armstrong scored four points in a Class 4A quarterfinal win over Lewis Central.

Then, she went a little crazy.

In a victory over Sioux City Heelan in the semifinals, she played the game of her life -- 22 points (on 9 of 11 shooting), along with six rebounds, five assists and six steals.

"She got out and used her speed and quickness, like she does in soccer," Lilly said. "She made some unbelievable plays, some great shots."

Armstrong was just getting started.

She made 10 of 12 shots, including a twisting, turning bucket with eight seconds left, then got a deflection on Harlan's final possession as the Saints prevailed 53-52 in the championship game. She scored 23 points, grabbed six steals and was an easy choice for 4A all-tournament captain.

"It just shows Kayla's will to win," said Sarah Dickes, Armstrong's backcourt mate and close friend. "She steps up most when the stage is biggest."

Maybe it's because she's been competing -- and succeeding -- for so long.

Even before those little-kids soccer games in which she dominated, Armstrong was a little gamer.

At age 5, she was a national runner-up. In tumbling, of all things.

"It was fun to go out there and do flips," she recalled. "It definitely helped me later on. I was always active, always doing something."

Armstrong lived her early years in Waverly, then moved to Cedar Rapids. She attended Westfield Elementary, part of the Linn-Mar school district, before opting for a Catholic education and attending Regis Middle School, then Xavier.

"Xavier was a place in which I felt at home," she said. "You have to want to be at the place you're at to be successful, and the teachers, the students ... this is where I feel comfortable."

Said Xavier principal Tom Keating: "The thing I like about Kayla, she's a Saint through and through. She's very proud of her school. She desires to do well for herself, for her teammates and for her school.

"She's a fun-loving, positive kid. She brings out happiness in other kids. You see her in the hallways, and the people around her are smiling and laughing."

Sometimes, the teasing and the giggling could be mistaken for indifference.

"She likes to have fun," Dickes said. "Sometimes I'd have to get on her to focus a little more. Sometimes, she'd have to get on me to lighten up."

Lilly said, "Kayla kept things light-hearted, and that was a button you'd have to push every now and then. But she'd give you that smile, and you just couldn't stay mad at her."

Because you knew, when it really mattered, Armstrong would shift gears.

In Armstrong's final three soccer seasons, she accumulated 115 goals -- 47 in her senior season, four in a 5-0 win over Sioux City East in the 2A championship match -- as the Saints stretched their title run to eight straight years.

Her trademark weapon: "I like to make diagonal runs behind the defense," she said.

Then she'd finish.

"Kayla is very quick and athletic," said Xavier girls' soccer coach Bailey Dorrington. "She's very skilled with a good center of gravity.

"She's one of the best players I've had an opportunity to play with or against, or to coach."

That's saying something, considering Dorrington went on to play at Drake University. Armstrong will take the same path to Des Moines in a few weeks.

"I was kind of reluctant to visit out there," Armstrong said. "But the team was so welcoming and open, and the campus is close-knit. It reminds me a lot of the Xavier community."

Armstrong will pursue a degree in pharmacy.

Before she departs, she intends to relax -- "get my tan on," she said -- and reflect.

She'll do so with fondness of a school year heaping with glory.

She'll do so with friends.

And most likely, the people around her will be smiling and laughing.

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