Keeping the tradition alive

Pete Barrows

It’s a new year, a new semester, a new season for Grand Valley State University soccer, and senior keeper and first year starter Abbey Miller has plenty on her plate— namely, playing into the clown-sized cleats passed down to her. The good news is that when names on a page become careers on a field, history has consistently recalled GVSU goalkeepers kindly.

“We have a lot of faith in Abbey,” GVSU head coach Dave Dilanni said. “Both (Kristina Nasturzio and Chelsea Parise) spent a year behind another (keeper) and learned from each other. Even before Kristina started, she sat behind Melissa Henson, whom she was able to learn from. Abbey Miller’s been able to do that as well.”

Henson, a starter from 2000 to 2003, still holds a share of the Lakers’ single-season save percentage mark (.938 in 2000) and, since hanging up her gloves, has assisted on GVSU’s sidelines tutoring her progeny.

The first of those successors, Nasturzio, a starter from 2005 to 2008, boasts the lowest career goals against average (.34 a match) as well as the highest career save percentage (.890) in GVSU history.

More recently, Parise, a starter from 2009 to 2012, played in (101) and won (84) more games while
recording more shutouts (59) than any Laker in the history of the program.

Between the three highly esteemed net guardians, virtually every meaningful keeper record—
single-game, single-season, career or otherwise— has been rewritten and kept, the position’s
prestige building with that of the program’s.

After three seasons under Parise’s wing and shadow, Miller is tasked with continuing the
exceptional legacy associated with being a Laker goalkeeper. Whether or not Miller’s up to the task
remains to be seen, but if she should fall short of expectations, it won’t be from a lack of ability.

“I think one thing Abbey may be lacking a little is game experience,” Dilanni said. “You try to
prepare her in training and practice, give her the opportunities to show she can make those plays,
but physically she has all the tools and looks the part. What Abbey lacks in experience, she brings
plenty of athleticism, body control and very good hands. I think those things, we’re hoping, are
going to fill that void for lacking a little bit of game experience.”

Idle time isn’t always the devil’s playground, but it certainly can be numbing.

Playing in only seven matches equating to 172.13 minutes of real game time since enrolling at GVSU, Miller has excelled in a limited capacity with seven saves a .875 save percentage, but has yet to deal with the 90-minute doldrums associated with the position and the school – it isn’t uncommon for a GVSU keeper to get two or fewer save opportunities in a contest – waiting to trip up the unsuspecting goalie. With a returning back four that helped to post 18 shutouts in 2012, Miller won’t be working alone, but it will take team attentiveness from the forward front down to stay ready and avoid being caught off-guard.

“Staying mentally in the game and staying focused,” Dilanni said. “That’s really what it is – mentally being strong, following the play and keeping your mind alive, understanding that there may only be one breakdown in the entire game and that’s the save you need to make.”

Playing extensively in the more rigorous spring season and getting plenty of reps in practice, Miller has worked tirelessly to stay sharp and has already made strides in her game since assuming the starting role this offseason. So much so that she hopes to make her mark amongst a heavily experienced back line.

“One of the main things I learned from Chelsea was how good of a communicator she was and how she organized the players in front of her,” Miller said. “Personally, I want to be that main communicator in the back. Just have a leadership role and be a presence in the back. And since coming in as a freshman, I feel much more comfortable playing with everybody.”

For the last decade, the GVSU goal has been tended with pride and the transition between successors has been made as fluidly as a keeper-initiated outlet to midfield. It’s become a natural order and yet not all keepers, for better or worse, are created equal. Each has brought a unique verve to the crease, proving that there’s more than one way to block a shot.

“Chelsea was an extremely loud presence on the field,” said senior defenseman and Miller’s roommate of the last three years Sam Decker. “She saw everything and she made sure you new it. If you missed something or there was something you should have done, she let you know.

Abbey is a great leader, but in some ways she’s more of a lead by example type. She talks when she needs to and lets people know what they need to know.”

Holly Ellerbroek, a redshirt freshman, is next in line to the throne, but until the 2013 season closes, the cycle will continue with Miller taking her long awaited turn atop. The shoes will take some breaking in of course as both Miller and Ellerbroek learn and adjust, but just like your mom assured you when she bought you a fresh pair in middle school, there’ll be plenty of room left to grow.

“Our hope is that every game, as she (Miller) gets a little more experience, she becomes a little more comfortable underneath herself,” Dilanni said. “As she does, she’s going to start blossoming into that goalkeeper that’s going to take us very far in the playoffs.

As daunting as it may be to replace a mainstay in goal, Miller is up for the challenge. Whatever trepidations she may have heading into the season, her teammates do not share.

“There’s not one person on this team who said ‘oh I’m a little nervous that Chelsea’s gone,” Decker said. “All anyone can say is that ‘Abbey’s going to do great this year’. Everybody’s really behind her and everybody’s ready for her to take this opportunity. It’s her time. It’s her year to shine.”

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