Championship goals: Women’s soccer seeks second NCAA title in a row
How do you replace Division III’s best player and still compete for a championship? That’s the question head coach Jim Conlon and the Washington University women’s soccer team are trying to figure out.
Last season, the Red and Green featured goalkeeper Lizzy Crist, the reigning Division 3 Honda Athlete of the Year, National Soccer Coaches Association of America National Player of the Year and D3soccer.com Goalkeeper of the Year, as the program captured its first NCAA National Championship. Now, Crist has graduated, but the No. 2 Bears still have title aspirations.
With Wash. U. intent on securing back-to-back crowns, Conlon and company have faced the tall task of filling a major void. After years of being able to rely on a steady presence in the net, Conlon is taking a new approach this season: a committee.
“The last two years, we’ve obviously had Lizzy in the front spot,” Conlon said. “We knew we were going to have a new face. We had a lot of keepers come into camp.”
Luckily, they’ve had little trouble filling Crist’s cleats so far. The Bears are 8-0-1 in 2017, looking as much a contender as they did a year ago, when they were 7-1-1 to this point. That’s because Conlon has used a combination of keepers—freshman Emma Greenfield and sophomore Katy Hutson—to get Crist-level production out of the spot. He’s done that using an age-old philosophy: Throw both into the fire, and see what happens.
“Roll the ball out there, as simple as that seems, and see who’s playing better and which one’s gifts are rising up consistently each day,” Conlon said.
Through nine games, that’s been Greenfield. She’s played slightly more minutes than Hutson—489:30 of 829:41—and hasn’t allowed a goal since 53 seconds into her first game, including a road shutout of No. 8 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Remarkably, the rookie Greenfield has eclipsed Crist’s elite production, albeit in a smaller sample size; Crist sported a 0.29 goals against average, while Greenfield is at 0.18.
The connection between Crist and Greenfield goes beyond the Red and Green—way beyond, in fact, to the fields of Minnesota. Both hail from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Crist from Wayzata and Greenfield from Saint Paul, just 30 minutes apart. And, believe it or not, they shared a goalie coach.
“We actually had the same goalkeeper coach in Minnesota, who I’m really close to, and she’s also very close to; so, that was a cool connection,” Greenfield said. “When I was looking at Wash. U., Terry [Leiendecker] always knew my recruiting process, and he was like, ‘Oh, the other goalie I coach, Lizzy, she’s down there.’”
Despite the two players’ Wash. U. timelines not overlapping, they’ve still formed a bond as Bear keepers past and present.
“I met her camp last year for the Wash. U. soccer camp over the summer, and I spent a fair amount of time with her and had good conversations,” Greenfield said. “I definitely haven’t interacted with her a ton, but she’s definitely been super supportive, always like texts me and stuff; so, she’s been super nice.”
Hutson, the other goalie vying for playing time, also shares a relationship with her predecessor from the year she spent as Crist’s backup. Learning from a Wash. U. legend—on and off the field—Hutson holds that experience in high regard.
“I just watched her,” Hutson said. “I mean, I studied Lizzy Crist. But not even her as a player, like she had foot skills that I’ve really wanted to have myself. But then also, the grades she made and how well she did the school-soccer-social life agenda that coach laid out for us.”
As good as Crist was, it’s a new feel in the locker room now that the goalkeeper group has been infused with youth.
“We’re all best friends,” Hutson said. “We’re always pushing each other. It’s not like it’s Lizzy Crist; none of us are senior all-American goalkeepers who just wreck. And, so, it keeps us in constant competition. But also, we’re all in the same place in our development; so, you always have somebody who understands.”
What’s clear is that no one—Conlon, Greenfield or Hutson—expects either goalie to try to live up to the pressure of being Crist.
“[Lizzy and Emma have] got similar backgrounds in the skill sets they have, but they’ve very different keepers,” Conlon said. “We expect Emma to be able to come into her own in due time. But, we definitely don’t expect her to be Lizzy. Lizzy and Emma are two different keepers, and we expect Emma to continue to do what she does.”
“I want to be Lizzy Crist, but I also have taken that experience and said I can’t always live in that shadow,” Hutson said. “I’m eventually going to have to be my own player.”
With just over a month until playoff time, Conlon is going to continue to evaluate the situation daily. That means a continuing roller coaster of split games, full games for one and full games for the other. Conlon isn’t looking for flashiness, just reliability.
“Consistency’s the big part,” Conlon said. “Can they make the saves they’re supposed to make and keep us in the games without making mistakes? There’s a lot of things on highlight reels on ESPN where it’s like, ‘Whoa, what a save!’ But if they let in a soft one, that one’s a backbreaker. So, can they make the saves they’re capable of making consistently? And that’s really what we’re looking for out of them.”
For their part, the two competitors understand the situation and are going with the flow. Greenfield, in particular, appreciates even having an opportunity to start as a freshman.
“I didn’t really have any expectations coming in,” Greenfield said. “I just knew that it was an open spot and it was a chance to compete in preseason for it, which, as a freshman, any time there’s an open spot to compete for, I’m really lucky to have that.”
Hutson also didn’t take anything for granted after spending the summer working at a camp for kids with special needs. Because of that job, she couldn’t train with the team, or even with a ball.
“I didn’t actually touch a ball all summer,” Hutson said. “I didn’t come in with expectations other than I chose service over training that summer; so, I knew nothing was a given coming in.”
Conlon hasn’t made a big deal out of the competition, so, neither have Greenfield and Hutson.
“He really didn’t say anything about it,” Hutson said. “We’ll have one-on-one meetings, and in all of those, he would just say, ‘Y’all are neck and neck,’ or, ‘We just don’t know yet.’”
“Coach has his rotation,” Greenfield said. “I just get told when to go in, where to be, at what time. I just listen to Coach and trust that he’s doing whatever he thinks is best.”
This weekend might be a key chance for one goalie to stand out: The Bears travel to rival No. 21 Emory University, a team that has averaged 3.38 goals per game, Saturday.