Depth at goalkeeper sparks competition for UMass women’s soccer

Olszewski has recorded 18 saves in three starts during Mendoza’s absence

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Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Kevin Schuster, Assistant Sports Editor

Returning to practice this week, goalkeeper Bella Mendoza is making a strong recovery from her knee injury suffered a little over two weeks ago. In her absence, Megan Olszewski has outperformed her expectations, leading the Massachusetts women’s soccer team to two wins and a tie in her three games as starter, recording 18 saves in the process.

“For me it’s just about being consistent,” Olszewski said. “Last year I didn’t see any time on the field and that’s been motivation for me coming into sophomore year. I think over time I’ve definitely deserved the time that I’ve gotten but it’s just through hard work and perseverance.”

This makes for even greater competition on the practice field at the goalkeeper position. With two goalies capable of leading the Minutewomen (3-2-1) to a successful 2021 campaign, head coach Jason Dowiak has decisions to make heading into Atlantic 10 play on Sept. 19 where those results determine their rankings in the postseason tournament.

“It really depends on how we’re progressing in training and once we’re comfortable getting [Mendoza] into game settings,” Dowiak said. “As always, it depends on the game. It’s the hardest position to plan anything. If a player is performing well and it’s not an easy game it’s really difficult to make a change in net but if a goalkeeper isn’t playing well or to the best of their ability, the last thing we want to do is affect their confidence by taking them off as well. It’s a real delicate approach to how we handle moving forward with it. We’re extremely excited that we have two very talented goalkeepers to lean on.”

UMass has recently relied on possession in the midfield areas of the pitch and Olszewski’s dependable shot-stopping to keep the game at hand and allow its side to play its style of soccer. Mendoza, however, has an undeniable talent playing the ball with her feet and releasing the offense on forward runs with deep over-the-top balls and her drop kicks.

“They’re good at different things,” Dowiak said. “I wouldn’t say it changes our style of play, but it adjusts our starting position sometimes. Bella’s distance or range on some of her kicks is a little bit farther than Meg’s but Meg’s accuracy has been excellent; her technique is very good. She gets the ball to where it needs to be and our players adjust so I don’t think it really changes who we are or what we look like, it just goes into more of our positional movement and how many extra passes we need to make in order to get a little higher on the field.”

The competition at practice should only result in better play from both goalkeepers, who will continue to push one another throughout the rest of the season. In recent weeks, Dowiak has echoed the importance of positional battles on the training ground and believes that only good will come from the intensity the goalkeeper depth will spark at practice.

“We encourage the competitiveness in all of the positions on the field,” Dowiak said. “Meg has played really well. She’s been good in possession, shot stopping, and keeping us calm. I think we feel very safe with Meg similarly to Bella when she’s healthy. I think it’s great for both of them because they lift each other up, motivate each other, and I think it’ll be an exciting battle to watch them go back and forth but it’ll make them both better too. We’re really proud of both of them.”

Through this process, the goalkeepers have built a strong relationship within the team and are eager to push one another no matter what decisions are made by the coaching staff. Mendoza has supported Olszewski through her injury to ensure that the Minutewomen are left with a reliable goalkeeper when the time comes to make a big save on the pitch.

“She’s awesome,” Olszewski said. “We get along very well and work together very well. Katie [Russell] too, she’s been awesome this year. We’ve been working side by side, bouncing ideas off one another. She’s been super supportive, and I’ve been supportive of her. It goes both ways.”

Kevin Schuster can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @KevinESchuster.