Wednesday, June 27, 2007

New goalie giving Washington freedom at back

Spisak steps into vacancy left by Nicci Wright

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Recent Texas A&M graduate Kati Jo Spisak, who now lives in Gaithersburg, has taken over from the retired Nicci Wright in goal for the Washington Freedom, allowing only three goals so far this season.
It’s funny how things have a way of working out.

When Washington Freedom goalkeeper and Gaithersburg resident Kati Jo Spisak was nine years old, she was forced into goal by her coach and uncle, former men’s U.S. National Team member Steve Pecher. No one else wanted to play the position. Originally, she hated it. But she didn’t quit.

Move ahead 14 years to Spisak’s three-save performance in Sunday’s 6-0 trouncing by the Freedom of the Long Island Rough Riders at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds. Now 23, the St. Louis native graduated from Texas A&M University this spring with program records in saves (291), shutouts (24) and minutes played (8,559:18). Her quick hands, instincts and the way she gracefully flings her body to defend the net, it’s impossible to imagine her as anything other than a standout goalie.

‘‘Basically, when I was younger, I wasn’t good enough to play,” said Spisak, who recorded her fourth shutout Sunday. ‘‘So my uncle kind of did us a family favor by letting me on the team. I remember he asked who on the team wanted to play goalie. No one volunteered, so it was just like, ‘Kati Jo, you’re goalie.’ I cried to my mom every day about how I hated it.”

Spisak stepped in this season for veteran Nicci Wright, a Freedom member since 2003 and former Canadian National Team starting goalkeeper whose 11 shutouts are second-most in Canadian history. Wright announced her retirement from competitive play this season and currently acts as the team’s goalkeeper coach.

Spisak, Wrights replacement and protégé, possesses all the skills of a good keeper. Her lanky 6-foot-2 frame allows for a huge range. She’s agile and fearless, never afraid to come off her line. And she’s got a jovial personality that meshes well with the team’s.

‘‘She’s real strong,” Wright said. ‘‘For one, her calmness in the back, she doesn’t look like she gets fazed, ever. She’s a great distributor. And with her range, she covers so much of the goal, she makes forwards have to be better. They have to really be on point. I love coaching her. Some players at her level think they know everything, but she’s just the opposite. It’s just refining a couple things, but she’s very receptive.”

Goalie is a unique position. Spisak is not always at the heart of the action, especially for the Freedom, who have dominated most opponents this season. But part of being a good keeper is remaining focused, even through lulls, for when opponents do attack — she made a diving save in the 71st minute Sunday, the Rough Riders’ first shot since the 19th minute — and keeping the team’s back line organized.

‘‘It’s challenging to stay in the game mentally, and physically actually, because you get stiff,” Spisak said. ‘‘But you have to keep your head it in it. And it’s my job to make sure the defense hasn’t switched off. Sometimes I think it’d be funny if I [wore a microphone] because I’m out there talking to myself about the game, making up my own raps. But it’s nice to be out here competing for something. I love getting the action, the pressure situations.”

Spisak has certainly handled the pressure situations efficiently. She has allowed only three goals in eight W-League games to help Washington to a 6-0-1 record and first place in the league’s Northeast Division. And that has instilled a confidence in her Freedom teammates, and the defensive line in particular.

‘‘Kati Jo has a really great presence on the field,” Freedom defender and University of Virginia standout Alex Singer said. ‘‘As a defender, communication is one of the most important things. And she helps us really stay organized in the back. We all have huge trust and confidence with her back there and that gives us a kind of security.”

Spisak, who recorded 13 shutouts in 2006 to help Texas A&M (No. 5 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll) to a 17-6-1 record, may have originally dreaded her position in front of the net. But she’s developed an affinity for it.

It led to an illustrious collegiate career and the possibility of a prosperous professional one. The Women’s United Soccer Association ceased operations after its third season in 2003 due to lack of funding, but is set to re-emerge next spring. And Spisak is hoping to be drafted.

‘‘I’d love to stay here and play for the Freedom,” Spisak said. ‘‘But I just want to play. I love the game of soccer. It’s different. If you look at basketball and football, the coaches stand on the sidelines and they’re yelling these set plays that you’ve practiced. Soccer is just free. In goal, it’s all me, just reacting.”

Note: The Freedom’s goals Sunday were scored by Rebecca Moros (2), Tara Kidwell, Ali Andrzejewski, Mallory Mahar and Katie Watson.