Far from the spotlight that shines on goal scorers and without the freedom to roam like the midfielders, stands the field hockey goalie.
Dressed completely from head to toe in equipment and sweat, the keeper of the cage is a position that challenges an athletes’ mental strength as well as their physical skills.
So, with a position that often hinges on failure more than success, why would anyone want to be play goalie?
“I don’t know,” said Buena junior goalie Elena Sneathen. “I wouldn’t say that I fell in love with being a goalie, but I do like it. I certainly like the challenges that the position brings.
“Being a goalie, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a tough position to play, but there is a satisfaction that comes with it too.”
Sneathen took her spot between the pipes the way a lot of field hockey goalies start — answering the call of a desperate coach, who asks and sometimes even pleads for anyone to step up and play the position.
Sneathen had been a defensive player in sixth grade when, in the following year, her middle-school coach asked the team for someone to volunteer to play goalie.
“I thought it looked cool — why not try it?” Sneathen said.
Delsea’s Kelsey DiBenedetto was lassoed the same way when coach Meg Unger asked her to be a goalie. Unger knew she had goalie skills in her blood after she coached her mother, the former Emelia “Mimi” Bauer, during her playing days.
“I was already a goalie in township soccer, so I didn’t want to be one in field hockey too,” DiBenedetto said. “But when coach Unger asked me, I thought I might as well try it. I had a lot of help getting the basics down thanks to my mom.”
DiBenedetto has adapted well. She’s a four-year starter with 30 career shutouts.
Trial by fire
Vineland coach Kate Cronk knows both sides of the preseason talk that acts more like a recruiting speech. She has given the talk and she has accepted the role too.
When she was a freshman at VHS, Cronk just wanted to play varsity at any cost. The price she had to pay was donning the goalie equipment.
“They told me to just stand there and keep the ball out of the cage,” said Cronk, who played center forward through middle school. “It was a trial by fire, that’s how I learned to play the position.”
Cronk played it pretty well too. She was a four-year starter for the Fighting Clan and developed a passion for the position that still runs deep today.
“Playing goalie is the best, there’s nothing else like it,” she said. “You’re the only one of the field who can see the entire field all at once. You can watch plays develop and you’re the one that communicates with the defense to stop the other team.”
During her coaching career at VHS, Cronk has developed what has become an annual ritual — finding a goalie.
This season, freshman Angelica You stepped forward and put on the leg pads.
“I wanted to play and I thought I would try it,” said You, who has posted two shutouts in her first seven varsity games. “I had about five minutes of instruction and then I was right in there playing against the alumni (in an August game).
“I just don’t try to think too much. If I stay focused on the ball and not think about anything else, I’m fine.”
Goalies know they are the last barrier between the defense and an opponent scoring a goal and most carry the mindset that they can stop each and every shot that is ticketed their way.
However, goals are going to be scored.
How a goalie reacts after getting beat is just as important, according to Sneathen.
“Coaches will always say that (the other team) had to get through 10 players before they get to you — no goalie buys that whole thing,” said Sneathen, who has chalked up 14 career shutouts, including three this season. “No goalie is OK with letting up a goal — ever. It’s disappointing, you feel like you let your team down.
“It can be extremely frustrating, but you have to get your focus back on the next play and get ready for your next chance. You can’t psych yourself out. You will always get another opportunity.”
Loneliness of a goalie
Goalies do get shots at redemption, they just don’t know when they will occur.
It’s not uncommon for goalie to face very few shots in a game, meaning there’s plenty of alone time for the player and her thoughts between chances.
“You have to be able to go from zero to 60 in an instant,” DiBenedetto said.
“It can be lonely at times,” Millville coach Claudia McCarthy said. “You stand back there and you might not face a shot for 10-15 minutes, then all of a sudden they’re coming right at you.
“There’s a lot of pressure for a goalie with having to stop breakaways and penalty strokes. It’s hard to be a goalie. I’m sure it’s even harder to be a parent of a goalie too.”
Even when the game is over, goalies can often be ostracized even by their own teammates. But it has nothing to do with her performance.
“Nobody wants to sit next to the goalie on the ride home, even with the windows down,” Buena coach Barbara Meyrick said.
“It’s the smelliest, dirtiest position on the field,” Cronk said. “You have all that heavy equipment on in the heat, it’s quite a smell.”
Along with her mask and leg pads, a goalie’s close friend is the laundry detergent that is used to get their equipment clean.
Despite all of the drawbacks that come with being a goalie, Sneathen said she wouldn’t trade any of it for another position.
However, that doesn’t stop her from having one reoccurring dream.
“I would love to take a penalty stroke, just one,” she said with a laugh.