October 6, 2011

Core Four: Veteran U.S. Goalies Embrace Competition

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com

Kendall McBrearty has played for U.S. teams since 2007.

Teammates call Devon Wills "Dev the Middie" for her unorthodox goalie play.

"When you're playing with the best and learning from the best, you just need to be a sponge," said eight-year Team USA goalie Amy Altig.

Backup goalie Megan Huether proved integral in Team USA's one-goal win over Australia in the 2009 World Cup final.

Nobody likes being the backup, and not everyone can be the starter — certainly the case on a team with four goalies, like the U.S. women's senior national team. But there's a simple solution to keep every player happy: friendly competition.

That will be the motto for Team USA when it gathers in Durham, N.C., for US Lacrosse's annual Stars & Stripes event this weekend, the squad's first meeting since the final roster was announced in August.

And it's a wise slogan to follow, because the backup might find herself as the starter at the most unexpected time.

Starter Devon Wills (Denver/Dartmouth '06) earned Player of the Match honors in the gold medal game of the 2009 World Cup by making seven saves and collecting three ground balls against only five goals. But backup Megan Huether (Lutherville, Md./Duke '06) was forced into action in the final, taking over for Wills when she received a yellow card for a push with less than five minutes remaining. With Australia rallying and narrowing the deficit to just one goal, Huether made a big save down the stretch before Wills was reinserted following her three-minute penalty.

"Each of us needs to embrace the role we're put in and be ready to contribute whenever we can," Huether said. "It's not always in the ideal situation, and you're not always going to come in warm, but you've got to be able to make the most of the time you have when you're given that opportunity. That's really the lesson that I've learned."

Wills, arguably the top athlete in women's lacrosse, has firmly established herself as the past, present and future of the national team — looking ahead to the 2013 World Cup — as she shows no signs of slowing, even though she said she "never think[s] I'm sitting pretty and always have something to work on."

Still, the consequence is that Huether, along with Amy Altig (Severna Park, Md./James Madison '05) and Kendall McBrearty (Alexandria, Va./Virginia '08), all long-standing Team USA members, have the misfortune of a career coinciding with one of the best netminders in the sport's history. But don't tell that to the backups, who say collaborative competition is the key to success.

"We work to push each other every day, and you've just got to be ready when your number is called," Huether said. "I'm so thankful to have Devon. She's a phenomenal goalie, and I think that we push each other. She motivates me to work even harder, and I think that's what you do when you play at this level. You're always competing with and against your teammates."

Said Altig: "There's always a give and take on a team, and I think that's one of the best things about our team and the U.S. program. You can have midfielders that are battling for a spot, but at the same time, they respect each other and they're learning from each other, just like we are. When you're playing with the best and learning from the best, you just need to be a sponge. There's nothing better than competing against the best, because it just makes you better."

Ultimately, winning seems to make the competition a lot easier. "Because in the end," Huether said, "you all get gold medals."

With the split-squad style of this weekend's event — Team USA will split into white and blue teams, facing North Carolina and Navy — all four goalies will see significant time, which means the competition is set to begin.

What's interesting, though, is that each goalie brings a unique skillset to the position. There's a different goalie for each set of circumstances, which is why coach Ricky Fried chooses to carry four of them.

What does each bring to the table?

"Meg is a lefty, so that obviously sets her apart pretty quick," Wills said. "She's got a totally different look. She plays, as far as depth in the cage, a little farther back. Kendall is pretty high up. Kendall and Altig have kind of been pretty similar to me. We play traditional angles and everything. But we're all different heights. We all have different foot speed compared to our hand speed. Kendall has really, really quick hands. Altig is really, really consistent all the time. She plays her angles great and is really patient. Meg is really quick, both with her hands and her feet, and she's great out of the cage."

As for Wills, Altig said her fellow keepers like to call her "Dev the Middie" for her athletic style of play, which fits nicely into Team USA's scheme, as the coaching staff has given the goalie freedom to be aggressive as part of the midfield ride.

Said Wills: "I never really wanted to play the position of goalie the way everybody kinds of pegs it, just standing in the cage. I wanted to make it different. I wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to be more than just somebody who is stopping the ball. With only having seven people, a 7-v-7 situation, I can be an extra defender. I know somebody is not going to score from 90 yards away, so I'm pretty sure I can cover somebody and give my team the opportunity to double. I think that kind of stuff is what I really like being able to do."

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