Sickness, surgery and Missouri soccer’s search for a starting goalkeeper

After a 2019 season full of turnover at the back, the Tigers have plenty of keepers this year.

Molly Poletto was running on her treadmill when the text came in.

In her first year as goalkeeper coach for the Missouri women’s soccer team, she had expected challenges, but nothing like this.

“McKenna has appendicitis,” the text read.

Poletto turned up the treadmill. Another goalkeeper down.

“I was like, I cannot believe this,” she said.

Missouri would have to finish the season with two goalkeepers who hadn’t played a game since high school.

“Normally, players get injured; goalkeepers get injured,” Poletto said. “But this was definitely the first time in my coaching career where we had some more major medical issues happen.”

The consecutive injuries of Peyton Bauman and McKenna Sheehan ushered in the saga that was the 2019 season for the Missouri women’s soccer team.

Coming into the season, Peyton Bauman, a redshirt sophomore, was excited to see the field for Missouri as their starting goalkeeper. After waiting two seasons, she finally started a game.

In her first 11 games, she logged 1,012 minutes of on-field action, but shortly after the team’s Sep. 26th match against Florida, Bauman began to feel very ill.

Attempting to push through the temporary setback, she went on to play against Georgia just a few days later. After allowing three goals against Georgia, however, Bauman was subbed out by coach Bryan Blitz.

Something was wrong.

After a trip to urgent care and a few days in the hospital, Bauman was diagnosed with viral meningitis.

The virus took a heavy toll on Bauman and eventually led to a return to her home state of Texas towards the end of the month. She was medically retired by the coaching staff in consultation with her doctors in January.

With Bauman out, Missouri’s freshman backup, McKenna Sheehan, had to step into the starting goalkeeper role just before one of the most important games of the season: a bout against No. 7 South Carolina.

Sheehan was able to keep the game close, only allowing one goal to the heavily favored Gamecocks. Though Missouri lost the game, hopes were high for the new goalkeeper.

Her three-game starting streak culminated in a shutout win over Tennessee for Missouri’s first conference win of the season. But four days later, Sheehan found herself in an operating room undergoing emergency surgery.

Missouri was out another goalkeeper.

“After the Tennessee game I started having a really bad stomachache,” Sheehan said. “I told my athletic trainer that I thought it was food poisoning at first. But it got progressively worse, and I went to the hospital and they said, ‘Oh yeah, we have to do surgery in a few hours.’”

Sheehan had appendicitis and eventually had her appendix removed, sidelining her for the rest of the season. With its two top goalkeepers out for the season, Missouri needed a new starter.

Enter Gillian Schulte.

She wasn’t necessarily a stranger to the team. The year before, Schulte, an electrical engineering major at MU, received a call from John Hawks, her former high school assistant coach and the director of operations for Missouri soccer. With just one goalkeeper on the roster, Hawks asked Schulte to practice with the team for spring training alongside Bauman.

Then, less than a year later, Missouri was back to just one goalkeeper on the roster. This time, that goalkeeper was Schulte.

In her first official game since a high school match three years prior, Schulte started in net. The game, at home against Alabama, saw Schulte make the first save of her collegiate career.

She was the lone goalkeeper to see the field in Missouri’s final three games of the season. Shulte finished the season with 12 saves under her belt.

As a walk-on inheriting the starting job in the final moments of the season, Schulte found herself in a very unique — and oftentimes stressful — position.

“I worked through it with my teammates and coaches and really just talked to a lot of people, and they helped manage my stress and stay positive about it,” Schulte said. “I feel like if this would have happened on any other team, it would have been much more stressful. [Blitz] was so supportive with it and would tell me that I was helping the team out no matter how well I was doing.”

The team also brought freshman Megan Moll, a member of the softball team, onto the roster for the final two weeks to act as a backup as well.

Coming off of a nightmarish year for the team’s keepers, Missouri had no choice but to look to the future and plan for the 2020 season. In May, Blitz and the Tigers added transfer Isabella Alessio, a goalkeeper from the University of South Dakota, to the roster.

Sophia Worth, a freshman from Denver, also joined Mizzou for the 2020 season.

Coming into the season, having four goalkeepers — Sheehan, Alessio, Schulte and Worth — at the ready felt like a blessing to Missouri.

“We have a super competitive group with the four,” Poletto said. “It’s a great training group, and they’re all progressing from where they were when they first came in. We’ll probably travel with two, and that’ll be super fluid — just like our entire lineup. I think it keeps everyone competitive.”

With four keepers, three of whom have college game experience, Blitz has plenty of options.

“[Alessio] is probably the most experienced goalkeeper just based on the season last year,” he said. “Any of those four can play. We’re rotating right now, and it’ll be a dogfight until the very very end. That’s a luxury compared to what we had last year, and they probably don’t like that, but I love it.”

In Bauman’s eyes, leadership appears to be one of the key factors in winning the starting spot.

“The biggest thing is having a voice out there and being that commanding goalkeeper presence,” she said. “We have that young back line right now and a three-back [formation], so you need that commanding leadership role in the back to organize them.”

The 3-4-3 formation she references has played an important role in the two games Missouri has played this season. In this setup, the weak-side midfielder drops back to help defend against the attack.

Missouri also showed an effective use of man-marking in a win over Vanderbilt, a tactical concept that relies on near-constant defensive movement. A goalkeeper’s communication plays an important role in both systems’ success.

Early in the 2020 season, Missouri has already used two of its goalkeepers. The season opener against South Carolina saw both Alessio and Sheehan play, and Missouri’s upset win over Vanderbilt featured Sheehan.

While it looks like Sheehan might have her hands on the starting job for now, illness and injury represent threats to the position that could once again test Missouri’s depth in net, specifically in the midst of a global pandemic.

“We have to be flexible,” Coach Poletto said. “Who knows when a test is going to come back positive.”

Amidst the goalkeeper uncertainty and questions regarding the coming season, one thing is indisputable: Missouri will never again take the goalkeeper position for granted.

Edited by Jack Soble |

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