At 10 months old, most people don’t know what they want to do growing up.
Apparently, Danielle Kriscenski did.
Posted up in the middle of a soccer net as her sister, Heather, shot at her, the Bristol, Conn., native got her first taste of action as a goalie as soon as she learned to walk.
Nineteen years later, Kriscenski finds herself in that same position: in between two goal posts.
This time around, she’s not just a toddler acting as an obstacle at the expense of her older sister. Instead, she’s the starting goalkeeper of the Massachusetts women’s soccer team.
Despite getting some extra reps at 10 months old, Kriscenski got her real start as a 4-year-old playing recreational soccer. As she grew older, not only did the love for the sport grow, but so did her talent.
“I always wanted to be around a soccer ball,” Kriscenski said. “I’ve been playing soccer since I could walk, and it just stuck with me.”
Her parents, Rick and Dana, decided to place their daughter in a premier club soccer league when she entered the sixth grade. Up to that point in her soccer career, she had always played the field positions, never specifically focusing on her time behind the net.
That changed, however, when Kriscenski played for Tony Dicicco’s team.
Dicicco – coach of the U.S. women’s national soccer team from 1994-99, where he won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics and the World Cup in 1999 – came up to Dana and Rick one day with a message that changed the way their 11-year-old would approach the game.
“He said to us, ‘Danielle has a natural talent, she really needs to get into goalkeeping’,” Dana Kriscenski said. “When he said that, it was like, ‘oh, okay.’ You have a world cup coach telling us we need to put her into her natural ability.”
Danielle Kriscenski, who began to develop asthma at the time, wasn’t opposed to the idea either.
“I started to realize it was my position to play,” she said. “I love playing goal. You are the last person (on defense) and you have to know that you’re good enough to play.”
Her success on both sides of the field – in goal and out – continued to impress her club team coaches. Heading into high school, it wasn’t a secret that Kriscenski had the potential to take her talents even further.
Her club coaches knew it, and before her freshman soccer season started, her father was assured of it.
“I asked her if she wanted to be a Division I soccer player in college, and she said ‘yeah that’s what I want to be’,” he said. “That’s the point when I knew she was going to dedicate herself to becoming the best goalkeeper she could be, and she has.”
UMass coach Ed Matz saw “a lot of potential” in Kriscenski when first recruiting the 5-foot, 9-inch goalkeeper.
The athleticism, size and versatility she possessed after playing field positions the majority of her pre-college career all added up to a player Matz believed would fit right in with his team’s style of play.
“We knew she would be very good with her feet,” he said. “With all the skills she has, we knew she could succeed at this level.”
Heading into her freshman season, Kriscenki’s impressive play through the summer and portions of the preseason camp caught the eyes of Matz and her teammates.
Senior defender and co-captain Lauren Skesavage thought Kriscenski “really stood out” in practice her first year when she was competing for the starting goalie job with seniors Emily Cota and Stephanie Gordon.
Unfortunately for Kriscenski, a wrist injury kept her out of some valuable preseason action. Feeling that she had suffered too deep of a setback with her time missed, Matz decided to redshirt Kriscenski, officially making her ineligible for the 2012 season.
What looked to be a promising beginning to her career turned into a disappointing, yet educational year for Kriscenski.
“It was tough, she had never sat on the bench, ever,” Dana Kriscenski said. “She was disappointed. But we just told her to learn and pick up what you can.”
Understanding the scenario Kriscenski went through, Matz was impressed with the way she went about her business.
“It was a tough situation because she’d come to practice every day, and you know you’re not going to play when you redshirt,” he said. “It’s all preparation and mental attitude, and you know you’re not going to be able to travel because of the Division I rule, but I was just impressed in how she handled herself.”
While sitting out an entire season didn’t bode too well for Kriscenski’s competitive nature, the opportunity to practice and notch a year’s worth of experience helped ease the tough transition that rookie collegiate athletes endure.
Off the field, Kriscenski got accustomed to balancing soccer time and school time. She learned the true meaning of becoming a student-athlete.
In practice, the redshirt freshman had the privilege of watching veterans Cota and Gordon take the field, taking mental notes on their “communication to the defense” and “their strong presence in goal.”
“Looking back at it, her injury wasn’t such a bad thing,” her mother said. “She got a feel for what was to be expected. She was able to ease into it.”
Becoming a leader
In her first eligible year of play this season, Kriscenski came in looking to prove herself. With the two senior goalkeepers graduated, the starting spot and the responsibilities of anchoring a defense fell into her gloves.
“Coming in this year, I knew that I was going to play, I wanted to be strong and show my teammates I was going to be the goalkeeper that I am,” Kriscenski said. “You have to make decisions for your team, and be a leader and presence on the field.”
Kriscenski has been that strong presence behind the net this season for the Minutewomen, providing a strong last-resort option on a defense that has anchored the team all season long.
Skesavage has noticed the difference in her goalkeeper’s play between this season and last, pointing to confidence as a huge factor in her growth as a player both on and off the field.
“She’s definitely grown and stepped out of her shell this year. She’s playing and has gained all that confidence,” the senior said. “Whenever our defense gets out of whack or too emotionally involved in a game, she’s there to calm us down, and get us back into position. I love having her behind me.”
Matz also recognized the gradual steps that his young defensive leader is making towards becoming an overall team-player.
“I think she’s becoming, in small increments, more of a leader, and that’s difficult for a freshman, but that’s something that a goalkeeper has to do,” the fourth-year coach said.
“One thing that impresses me is her ability to be comfortable in speaking with all of her teammates, and hanging out with all of them,” Matz added. “Whether it’s a freshman, sophomore, junior, or whatever, she’s just comfortable with being part of the team in any aspect, which is great.”
The Minutewomen went through a tough transition period this year after losing their top offensive player from a season ago in Moa Mattson, while trying to incorporate 14 new young faces into a system that expects strong results year in and year out.
Kriscenski’s leadership role on the defensive end will only become greater when Skesavage hangs up her cleats at the end of the season, handing over the reins of a fairly young roster to the redshirt freshman.
However, Kriscenski isn’t afraid of that responsibility. In fact, she embraces it.
“With Lauren (Skesavage) leaving, that will be a big spot that we’re missing,” she said. “I think that I need to become more of that leader on the field, and I will definitely be able to deal with that weight.”
Having already won the Atlantic-10 Rookie of the Week honors back in September, Kriscenski has team goals that would define a season far greater than any individual accolade could. She wants to win the A-10 Championship, a feat UMass hasn’t accomplished since 1997.
“That’s my biggest goal coming here,” Kriscenski said.
Her biggest goal 19 years ago was to stop her older sister from scoring.
While those goals have changed over time, one main objective remains the same: not letting any of them get behind her.
Joey Saade can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @JSaade1225.