It only took 12 minutes for freshman Kitty Qu to get the signal to put on her gloves.
After her team went two goals down just minutes after the season-opening whistle, Penn coach Nicole Van Dyke called up the untested newcomer for her first taste of collegiate soccer.
That was over two weeks ago, and Qu has played every minute of action since.
“It’s cool for me because it’s taking a lot of responsibility as a freshman,” the Foster City, Calif., native said.
In the three games that followed that opening 3-1 loss to Maryland on August 28, Qu has held on to her starting spot, showing that her stint in goal was not a one-time occurrence.
And with Qu in goal, the Quakers (3-1-0) have opened their season with fantastic momentum. In her first start, a week after the Maryland game, Qu recorded her first career clean sheet as the Red and Blue steamrolled Robert Morris to a 5-0 victory.
Penn then moved on to grab 2-1 wins over both Lafayette and Delaware, bringing the team to a 3-0 record with the freshman starting in net.
“Freshman, to me, is just a title,” Van Dyke said. “You want experienced players on the field, and you want players that know the system, but we come out every week, and the top players play.”
After the graduation of Kalijah Terilli — a United States U-23 National Team-recognized goalkeeper — last spring, there was uncertainty as to who would grab the starting spot when the new season rolled around.
Senior Carrie Crook looked to be the favorite, after assuming the role last year when Terilli succumbed to injury early on in the campaign. It was Crook who started in net against Maryland before she was subbed out in the first half.
Another contender could be found in sophomore Kiera Towell, who saw action in two games last season and holds the number one shirt – the traditional goalkeeper identifier.
“I think this [competition] is a testament to the players,” Van Dyke said. “They come out every practice and compete for a starting spot. It’s the same with the goalkeepers.
“As you settle in throughout the year, it might become more apparent who might be a starter.”
For Qu, who only began playing goalie as a child because of her early growth spurt, assuming such a central role in the team in her first season was never a given.
“I just wanted to compete,” she said. “Whatever happens, I knew that it would be in the interest of the team.”
Being two inches shorter than Penn’s other goalie options, Qu can no longer claim height as her defining attribute. Instead, she has shown to excel with the ball at her feet, a critical skill for keepers to have nowadays as more and more is being expected of them.
“Sometimes she almost freaks us out where she’s too calm,” Van Dyke said. “She takes a touch [and] finds a player even under pressure.
“That’s the modern goalkeeper. I think that’s something that definitely sets her apart at times from goalkeepers in the conference or goalkeepers that we’re playing against.”
The idea of a sweeper-keeper — a goalie that not only stops shots but acts as a deep-lying center back at times — has become a key component in today’s game, and Qu has adapted well.
“I think it’s really important to just stay calm because that’s where a lot of mistakes happen,” she said.
For Qu, however, there still seem to be some aspects of her game in which she can improve.
Of the three goals she has let in so far, all of them came from set pieces. While the penalty kick can be ignored, the other two were delivered by a corner and a free-kick, suggesting that Qu has room to develop her strength in the air — one of the three key areas Van Dyke and her staff use to analyze goalies in practice.
Also, despite having played over 300 minutes already, Qu has remained largely untested, only having been forced to make seven saves. On the bright side, a quiet day for a goalkeeper is a good sign from the backline, which was one of the strongest aspects of the Quakers’ 2015 campaign.
“They are absolutely amazing,” the goalie said of her defenders. “They are so helpful in just helping me gauge the flow of the game or helping me in those situations where I might lack that experience.”
With a long season ahead of the Red and Blue, only time will tell if Qu can hold onto the starting role, but so long as results hold, the back of Penn’s net looks as safe as ever.
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