It may be Virginia’s potent offense that has sparked the Cavaliers to an unblemished record and their first No. 1 ranking since 1990, but the team’s incredible depth at the goalkeeper position has also been an integral part of the program’s rise to the top.
Virginia has four goalkeepers on the roster – three of whom have seen game action this season – and the coaching staff feels the friendly competition has been a huge benefit to the team.
“It is such an important position,” head coach Steve Swanson said. “I think you have to have depth at that position to survive a soccer season. We’re fortunate we have four keepers we feel very confident in.”
It is an interesting mix at the position. Last year’s starter Danielle DeLisle, who led the Cavaliers to the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship in 2012, returned to the team, as did Churchill O’Connell and Jessie Ferrari. O’Connell saw limited game action last year and Ferrari redshirted. Then, there is freshman Morgan Stearns, who has gained international experience as a member of the U.S. U-20 National Team.
Some preseason injuries slowed the process of deciding on a clear-cut starter, so Swanson rotated DeLisle, Stearns and O’Connell over the first few weeks of the season.
“We felt confident in them, but no one had really established themselves,” Swanson said. “We felt it was important for most of them to get some game time. Since that time, both Danielle and Morgan have emerged.”
While Stearns has been getting the majority of minutes in goal, DeLisle has earned her fair share of starts and playing time as the group has put together a 0.56 goals against average, which ranks 24th nationally.
“They’re getting better, they’re pushing each other,” Swanson said. “They’re very supportive of each other and you don’t often see that in this situation. The competition brings out the best in them and the support they have in one another has been inspiring.”
Stearns has compiled a 6-0 record and 0.36 GAA with three shutouts in six starts, while DeLisle has posted a 2-0 mark and 0.80 GAA with two combined shutouts in three starts.
“I think any elite athlete tries to seek out the most competitive situations where you can push yourself and get the best out of yourself,” Stearns said. “I think it is awesome to have a training environment where you know the other goalkeeper can take your spot or you can take their spot on any given day. It pushes you to your limits and can only make you better.”
“It’s a very rare commodity when you have quality keepers that are willing to be in this environment because they could have probably gone anywhere else and been a starter hands-down,” Virginia goalkeeper coach Kerry Dziczkaniec said. “They’re competitors and they wanted to be challenged and earn those minutes.”
While DeLisle had proven herself at the position while leading the Cavaliers to a school-record 18 victories last year, she welcomes the competition and the chance for the team to keep improving.
“I think it is a positive thing for us,” DeLisle said. “Everything is very competitive and in every training session everyone is out there to get better every day. That can only help us as a goalkeeping group and as a team. I may not be playing as much as last year, but in the grand scheme of things, Morgan is a great keeper and she and I feed off each other.”
“Danielle is about as unselfish a person as you’ll ever meet,” Swanson said. “I’m not saying she’s not competitive and doesn’t want to do well, but we’re fortunate with her that the team comes first.”
Last week, the duo split starting duties on a road trip against ACC foes as the Cavaliers improved to 9-0-0 on the season.
“Morgan had a great game for us against Boston College,” Dziczkaniec said. “A lot of players might sniff at the fact she had a great game against BC on Thursday and then doesn’t start on Sunday against Pittsburgh. She said awesome, I’ll help my teammate get ready.”
“I think support on both sides is huge,” Stearns said. “She helps warm me up, not just physically but mentally and makes sure I’m ready for the game. Before the game and during halftime, she talks to me a little bit to let me know anything she sees from the sidelines. It’s the same thing when she gets the start. I do everything I can to make sure she is ready to play.”
The two are also learning from each other’s complementary styles. DeLisle has shown the younger Stearns the ropes of collegiate soccer, and Stearns shares different techniques she learned on the international stage.
“Where one has a strength, the other is trying to get a little bit stronger in that capacity,” Dziczkaniec said. “They complement each other in that regard.”
“When a freshman comes into any program, they need to learn opponent tendencies and our style of play,” DeLisle said. “In the preseason, I was able to help her get a feel for how our backline operates and help with the communication aspect of the game. She’s a great ball handler and great in the air and that has helped me to pick up some of her techniques. “
The Cavaliers travel to Duke on Thursday for an ACC match-up at 7 p.m. The Blue Devils knocked UVa out of the 2012 NCAA Tournament in the last meeting between the two programs.
Amy Farnum Patronis is a contributing writer for College Soccer News covering Division I women's soccer. She can be reached at email@example.com.