Cary, North Carolina. May 1, 2021.
Vanderbilt soccer has had the most unusual, yet extraordinary, year in its existence: it only played eight fall regular season games—all SEC opponents. And despite going a pedestrian 4-4 in those matches, the Commodores went to Orange Beach, Alabama, and dominated four straight contests—upsetting Tennessee, Texas A&M and Arkansas in their final three—to claim an SEC Tournament crown. Their starting keeper, Sarah Fuller, became an impromptu kicker for the football team. And the NCAA tournament, usually an early December competition, was moved to May.
Yet, on that spring afternoon, a healthy Fuller was not in goal. Instead, freshman Kate Devine manned the net against Penn State. Zero career starts. Still, head coach Darren Ambrose put his faith in the young goalie to play in Vanderbilt’s biggest game of the season.
“Darren always says, ‘You’re not a freshman on the field, you’re a soccer player on the field, so just go out, do what you know how to do. Just play the game.’ And that’s what I tried to do at least. I was really nervous,” Devine said.
Devine’s welcome to college soccer had been a halftime substitution a few weeks earlier against No. 7 Duke, a game which went to double overtime but stayed scoreless through all 120 minutes. With her five saves, Devine played well enough in that match and the following practices to earn herself the starting role against Penn State. Since that day, she’s been the Commodores’ number one option. It isn’t an easy part to play though, especially as a sophomore with an experienced backline.
“I have to hold myself to a higher standard every day. Every day I have to show why I’m playing,” Devine said. “I think the group, as a whole, has raised [its play], too, as a result.”
Not only must Devine play at a high level, but as the starting keeper, she must become a leader for both her class and the team as a whole. This is something Ambrose continues to remind her of, encouraging the young keeper to become a commander from the back.
“He [Ambrose] really sees me coming into a leadership role in my class in general, especially next year, he has big expectations for us [as a team]. So, we’ve been talking as a class and I’m kind of trying to make sure that other people are falling into a leadership role too,” Devine said. “For me on the field, I think the biggest thing is to organize.”
Organization is paramount for any keeper. Ambrose knows this and has consistently impressed the importance of communication on Devine. After all, goalies can see the whole pitch and need to use this perspective to make on-the-fly adjustments, especially defensively. Indeed, though this is Devine’s first real season in college, she’s already made improvements in this area.
“She’s got the composure, she’s confident with her feet, we can play through her, she’s a good shot-stopper too,” Ambrose said recently on the Hustler Sports 30 Podcast. “Her communication is actually getting better and better too, and that’s the thing with a young goalkeeper: the athleticism is one thing, but presence and communication are things you learn over time, and the best goalkeepers are typically ones that need to make the least [amount of] saves because they’re always able to put people in positions to do the work for them.”
Ambrose clearly sees Devine’s talent and potential, but he also knows she must cultivate her skills if she’s going to take her play to the next level.
“[Communication is] where she’s still got, obviously as a young goalkeeper, an opportunity to grow leaps and bounds, but in the last two months we’ve been together, I think that’s where I’ve seen some significant gains from her too,” Ambrose said.
The Commodores had a rocky start to their 2021 season despite their 2020-21 season successes. They went 3-4-1 against non-SEC opponents and hadn’t been able to find a rhythm offensively, only scoring more than two goals once in their first eight games, or defensively, allowing an unimpressive 1.5 goals per game.
However, something has changed of late for the Commodores. They began facing SEC opponents, and suddenly, their offense came to life and their defense tightened. Vanderbilt has outscored opponents 12-3 in its past six matches, garnering a 3-2-1 record in that difficult span. Their only losses came against No. 19 South Carolina and No. 7 Arkansas. In both games, the Commodores only lost 1-0, putting up a near-perfect defensive effort against quality sides. Devine racked up 10 combined saves in the two tilts.
In general, the sophomore keeper has been integral to the renewed success on West End. Along with a save percentage of just under 90 percent, Devine has also picked up three clean sheets in the last six matches. Still, she knows that the Commodores must keep their heads on straight.
“It’s important [for us] to not go into any games thinking it’s going to be an easy game,” Devine said. “I think we’ve kind of done that against teams this year, and it resulted in a loss most of the time.”
The team has come together but faces big challenges moving forward. The next will come in a week on Oct. 17 against a strong Ole Miss side at 12 p.m. CDT. Devine will certainly be tested as both a goalie and a leader throughout the game. Luckily, she’s well prepared and well equipped to handle whatever the Rebels have in store for her.