Goalkeepers use season cancellation for growth


Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

Junior goalie Sami Sample (0) stands with her arms around her teammates. The team continues to practice every day despite their season being delayed due to COVID-19.

By Angelle Cortes, Staff Writer

Recent graduate Jaelyn Cunningham made a huge impact on the soccer team, during her four years at Illinois. Three out of her four years, she was the starting goalkeeper for the team and her outstanding performances led her to be named to the 2018 All-Big Ten Second Team.

“Obviously Jaelyn is a stunning goalkeeper,” said senior goalkeeper Sami Sample. “Her ability on and off the ball has really inspired me over the past three years. Coming in as one of the two freshman goalkeepers I looked up to her.”

The Reynoldsburg, Ohio, native started off strong her sophomore year, when head coach Janet Rayfield gave her the chance to get some minutes on the field. During the 2017 season, Cunningham played and started 18 out of 19 games. That same season, she recorded 106 saves, which places her second in Illinois goalkeeper history for saves.

The following year in the 2018 season, Cunningham’s junior year, she started all 20 games. She recorded a total of 71 saves and finished with a 0.772 save percentage, allowing only 21 goals. Cunningham’s accomplishments for that season also include six shutouts, placing her sixth in program history and a spot on the All-Big Ten Second Team.

In Cunningham’s final year as an Illini, she started all 18 games during the 2019 season. Cunningham allowed 30 goals and had a save percentage of 0.674. In Cunningham’s four years at Illinois, she had played a total of 5154:42 minutes, made 242 saves and had a save percentage of 0.738.

“(Cunningham’s) presence was the biggest impact,” Sample said. “She was the perfect leader in the backline, she did such a great job of commanding her team and holding everyone in line. If Jaelyn was yelling at you, you knew you had to switch and do something right.”

While the season is delayed due to COVID-19, there are still hopes for a spring season. For now, the Illinois women’s soccer team is still practicing every day and if a spring season does get announced then the search for Cunningham’s replacement will start.

Illinois has four goalkeepers currently on the roster. There are two seniors, Elizabeth Cablk and Sample, and two freshmen, Natalie Phelps and Julia Cili.

While the process to replace Cunningham in the lineup won’t start until a season will be announced, it’s still anyone’s game to take the spot.

“To me, a great goalkeeper is one who does all of the simple things well,” said Rayfield. “I think consistency is a huge piece of goalkeeping. Goalkeepers can save the game, but also give it away with mental mistakes. Great goalkeepers make all the good saves and make a few great ones.”

Rayfield says the focus is not comparing but rather growing and developing.

“Right now it’s not about comparison, it’s not about evaluating who’s our starter,” said Rayfield. “It’s about how much we can grow and develop all four of these goalkeepers in the time that we have.”

In the environment the keepers have established right now, all four goalkeepers can push each other to be better and improve.

“Each goalkeeper will have an area of strength, and that goalkeeper has to push the envelope in that area,” Rayfield said. “Someone might be great at shot-stopping, well they need to set the bar and push everyone else to be great at that.”

The competitive nature at practice helps all four goalkeepers to stay on their toes and brings out the best in them, which is what the coaches are currently looking for.

Being a goalkeeper is a unique position in soccer. It differs in skillset in each individual, and they train on their own, rather as a team. Assistant coach Lisa Lubke works with the goalkeepers to give them a specific skill set for them to work on.

“Their training session looks quite a bit different than the other field players,” Rayfield said. “While the field players are working on their technical skillset, the goalkeepers are separated and off their own.”

At some point during practice, whatever the goalkeepers have been working on individually will then get integrated within the whole team. Some drills involve rapid-fire shots, which gives the goalkeepers tons of repetition that they don’t get in the game setting.

“A game may be four or five shots on goal, but in training, they may take 50-60 shots in a short period of time,” Rayfield said. “So the volume of reps they get in training is probably significantly greater than the volume of a field player in terms of repetitions of what they have to do everyday.”

While goalkeepers typically practice individually, there are times they will jump straight into a scrimmage to work on their tactical skills. When it comes to plays on the defensive half, it’s important to have the keeper so they can get the practice on commanding the backline, whether it be defending a play or playing from the back.

“I think it’s always a balance of technical repetition to continue to grow them technically in their shot-stopping and goalkeeping ability,” Rayfield said. “Then tactical reps where they are involved with the team and part of the tactical solutions and tactical situations we’re trying to resolve.”


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