Photo: Ellen Frierson / The Daily Pennsylvanian

As the sun began to descend on a balmy afternoon, the crowd at Rhodes Field continued to swell. A full grandstand left only standing room for the men’s soccer home opener against Saint Joseph’s, reviving memories of last year’s packed NCAA tournament victory.

However, Sunday’s affair brought a distinct group — freshmen making the journey down South Street after the Penn Athletics New Student Orientation picnic. At the center of attention was one of their own — goalkeeper Max Kurtzman.

Replacing second-team All-Ivy graduate Ben Berg, Kurtzman hasn’t skipped a beat since being named starter, posting a shutout in his first game on the road at La Salle and giving up a lone goal to the Hawks in a 5-1 Penn victory.

The 6-foot-1 keeper is a local product who hails from The Haverford School in Bryn Mawr, Pa. A member of FC Delco, Kurtzman was rated the No. 2 goalkeeper in the Class of 2011 by TopDrawerSoccer.com, and played as a member of the U-18 U.S. National team.

“I first met Max with my association with the national team,” said Fuller. “He’s a young, athletic, agile type of keeper.”

Kurtzman’s evening began relatively quietly as St. Joe’s failed to hold possession and Penn midfielders continued to spray balls to forwards Stephen Baker and Duke Lacroix.

It was St. Joe’s that drew first blood as the Quakers conceded a corner. The ball was played to Hawks midfield Jake Nelson at the corner of the box and even Kurtzman could not get a hand to his superb curling effort.

After allowing his first goal, two seminal moments contrasted both the brilliance and shortcomings of the young keeper.

Early in the second half with the Quakers still leading by a goal, a combination down the flank led to looping service into the Quakers’ box. Kurtzman came out but couldn’t hold on to the ball as it bounced around before being cleared away.

“I need to work on crosses in the air,” Kurtzman said later. “I want to keep my fitness, stay sharp, stay healthy and keep improving every day.”

Despite the miscue, Kurtzman rebounded, a trait Fuller attributes to his keeper’s tremendous “confidence.”

With Penn leading 3-1 in the 70th minute, St. Joe’s midfielder Tyler Levengood put Alex Critzos through to goal. After touching the ball to his favored right foot, Critzos struck a low and hard shot. Kurtzman dove to his left, and most impressively, he held on to the ball, preserving the two-goal lead.

The rest of the match, Kurtzman was rarely tested and used good judgment in his distribution and a strong vocal presence.

“He’s one of those keepers who never shuts up during a game,” senior center-back Thomas Brandt said of the netminder. “But that’s something you definitely need.”

Kurtzman’s development has been buoyed by an experienced defense and one of the best central-back pairings in the country. Playing behind seniors Jake Levin and Brandt has eased his transition.

“It all starts with Jake, Tommy, Nicky and Johnny,” said the keeper of his center backs and sophomore outside backs Nicky Yin and Jonny Dolezal. “They’ve done a great job bringing me along.”

“It’s one of the best situations for a young goalkeeper to come into,” added Fuller.

And if the Red and Blue hope to make to a run at the Ivy title and a splash in the NCAA tournament — like many think they can — they may well need Kurtzman to save the day.

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