The growth of a goalkeeper
By Rob Daniels
Staff Writer, UNCGSpartans.com
As a record-chasing goalkeeper, Kelsey Kearney can admit to some things. A couple of years ago, there were times when her internal iPod was in continuous shuffle mode, playing a soundtrack to mitigate the boredom of inactivity as her UNCG teammates kept the ball out of the danger zone.
"As a freshman," said Kearney, owner of 25 career shutouts, "there was everything going on in my head. As a junior, it's a matter of constantly reminding myself to stay focused."
Whether manifested in judicious decision-making or full recovery from a major knee injury, mental discipline has marked Kearney's rise to an elite level of a job with zero tolerance for lapses. As the Spartans prepare for this weekend's Southern Conference games at Wofford and Furman, she sports a goals against average of 0.626, good for the 29th-best mark in NCAA Division I.
Her next shutout will set a school record. She should break the SoCon career standard of 36 at some point next season. And she vows to pay it little mind.
"Credit her for being open to being a student of the game," coach Eddie Radwanski said. "She was a little raw when she came out of high school and club play, but she possessed outstanding qualities. She has really fulfilled a lot of that promise, and she's going to get better."
As a result, the Spartans (11-1-1, 6-0 SoCon) are ranked 20th in one national poll and 38th in the RPI.
Any rough spots in Kearney's game probably stemmed from her background, which is atypical of the modern athlete who is told at age 10 to find one game and stick to it. Kearney grew up playing basketball, and she wasn't going to give it up. Thankfully, she found a tolerant club coach who facilitated the juggling.
Today, Kearney appreciates the crossover. Getting a rebound in traffic isn't unlike punching a corner kick out of a crowd.
"It was good conditioning," she said. "It kept me in shape, and I enjoyed it."
She seized the starting keeper's job upon arrival at UNCG from Durham Academy, and there's no statistical evidence to suggest she ever struggled.
But Kearney can look at game tape from 2008 and tell the freshman on the screen to get off the line or stay back, and her coaches know the current call is the right one.
The growth doesn't come entirely from live experience. Kearney has become a devotee of the Fox Soccer Channel and its educational partner, the DVR.
To Radwanski, one moment from early this season explains it better than all others. The Spartans were in a scoreless tie with Southern Cal, now 26th in the RPI, in a Labor Day weekend tournament at Cal State Fullerton when Kearney was put on the spot.
"It's a breakaway," the coach said. "This kid's walking in. In the box. Gets within 8 yards or so. Kelsey shows great composure in not rushing it."
If time stopped, space didn't, and space became Kearney's friend.
"I came out to a certain degree," she said, "but I didn't come flying out. I held my ground. You could see she was thinking. And thinking. And thinking."
The opponent blinked and Kearney made a reflexive save that kept the game even.
"I definitely refined things in my first two years of experience," she said. "My freshman year, I probably would have come out guns blazing."
The bigger picture offers its own proof of maturity. On the eve of the Southern Conference tournament last November, Kearney suffered a freakish, non-contact injury while jogging after practice. Two ligaments and the meniscus were torn in her right knee. Surgery and recovery would take months.
The inclination in such circumstances is to accelerate the timetable, to skip a step and graduate from light running to full work. Kearney resisted the urge. She took things in their prescribed order and came back without incident this season, appropriately managing the balance between recovery and reticence.
"The farther you get from the injury, the less you think about it, but it's always on your mind," Kearney said. "I met with a sports psychologist here at UNCG, Julie Sutcliffe. She helped me get through it.
"It's a seven-month recovery, and it's a long road. And it was the first surgery I ever had. I had never even gotten an IV before. So it was a rude awakening."
Wonder if she's tentative about taking charge in congested space? Don't. The intensity's still there in word and deed. Her comrades in the defense seem just as proficient at their jobs as Kearney is at hers.
"There is a certain amount of direction-giving that's all the same," she said. "That type of direction is clear, concise and to the point. And that goes for anybody on the field. When it comes to late in the game and players are fatigued, encouragement goes a long way. That is just as important as screaming at a defender that their performance has to be better. If all you do is yell at them, they're just going to tune you out."
The Spartans intend to remain tuned in and disinclined as they pursue the goal of which they will not speak: a regular season good enough to merit an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament if that becomes necessary.
"I'm not getting action the full 90 minutes of the game," Kearney said. "I may not be called on until the 89th minute of the game, but when I am, it's important that I make the save. I have to."
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