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Lainey Burdett hoping to be first Arizona Wildcat drafted into NWSL: ‘I feel really good about it’

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Excuse Lainey Burdett for not paying attention in class on Thursday. She has a good reason for it.

The NWSL Draft starts at 10 a.m. MST, and the Arizona goalkeeper is hoping to be one of 36 players selected.

“I might as well put everything else on hold,” she said.

Burdett has a strong chance to become the first Wildcat ever drafted into the NWSL. The senior is a two-time all-Pac-12 performer and Arizona’s all-time shutouts leader. The Las Vegas native also started nearly every game over the last four years, leading the Wildcats through their most successful stretch in program history.

TopDrawerSoccer lists Burdett just outside its NWSL Draft Top 40.

“I’m willing to do anything for the team,” she said, outlining why a team should take a chance on her. “And I think I have a good work ethic when it comes to that stuff. I’m just always wanting to learn and adapt to how different teams play. It’s like when I went from club to college, but it’s an exciting feeling just because (going pro) is another step up.”

I caught up with Burdett on Wednesday to chat about what’s ahead for her, how she is feeling about Thursday’s draft, and more.

The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ryan Kelapire: How are you feeling about your chances of being drafted?

Lainey Burdett: I feel really good. I’m not necessarily going into it being like I need to be one of the 36 picks ... because I know there are people that get called after. I could be getting calls from other coaches after the draft that want me to go to a trial or preseason training camp. So I feel really good about it and I’m keeping positive energy, hoping that if something does come my way I’m able to take it.

RK: What’s the process like of entering the NWSL Draft?

LB: I didn’t really know what it entailed until it actually came. It’s just like filling out your name and references and stuff. But the hardest part, and I had help, was you had to submit a highlight video, and it had to be from your junior and senior year. Thankfully I had (assistant coach) Paul (Nagy), who contacted the marketing people here, and he sent them a bunch of different games and told them to put stuff together. It was nice having that because I can’t imagine having to do that.

Then I had to create a soccer résumé and it was mainly of your college accolades, but I even had to go way deeper and look at club and (Olympic Development Program), all that stuff. Those were the two most time-consuming things, but it wasn’t anything too complicated.

RK: Have you been in contact with any NWSL teams?

LB: I’ve only really talked to one, but mainly they’ve been going through Paul, who’s then been talking to them and giving them more insight.

(Editor’s note: I’m told at least two teams have expressed serious interest in Burdett.)

RK: What would it mean to you to be the first Wildcat ever drafted?

LB: It’s awesome. It’s a good feeling to have, knowing the players we have now and how the program has grown. It’s kind of like me, if I do get drafted, being a starting point for everybody. Being the first one, that’s a cool thing. But then it’s cool to be that starting point. Like, hey, I got here and now you know that everything you’re doing here works and it can get you somewhere if you’re serious about it, you love it, and want to keep doing it.

RK: If you get drafted, would you have to drop out of school to join the team? (Training usually starts in March, Burdett is set to graduate in May.)

LB: It would just depend on the team and what position they are in with goalkeepers. For some teams they may be happy with their No. 1 goalkeeper, maybe even their No. 2, so I’m kind of there as like a No. 3 goalkeeper. They may not need me as much, so if I made the team and I was offered a contract during that time they could be like, ‘if you still need to finish school, you can go finish it and then just come back when you’re done.’

I wouldn’t make any irrational decisions where I’m dropping all my classes because I get invited to camp or something, because there’s no guaranteed contracts. So I would have to just wait it out. It’s kinda nice that it’s in March because it’s later in the semester. So maybe at some point my professors would be able to adapt to that and let me go.

RK: What are your plans if you don’t get drafted? Would you pursue opportunities overseas?

LB: Yeah. I just want to keep playing, whether that’s here or overseas. You might as well take a whack at this, try it out, and then if that doesn’t work then try to find somewhere to go overseas.

RK: Is potentially getting drafted into the NWSL or going pro something you have always envisioned?

LB: If you would have told me at the beginning of my college career that this is a possibility, I would have told you that you were insane. I wasn’t as confident in my abilities as I am now. And definitely being here and training with Paul and everything, he really instilled so much confidence in me.

RK: So then when did going pro start to be something that you thought was a real possibility?

LB: I started talking about it more at my end-of-the-year meeting with (head coach) Tony (Amato) after my junior season. He was saying ‘what are your plans?’ We’re never really asked that because freshman and sophomore year, it’s more focused on what’s going on here. But after your junior year you have one year left, and I told him I’d want to keep playing if it’s a possibility.

And then he’s like, ‘you question it as if it’s not going to be a possibility.’ He said ‘if this is something you want to do, you need to be confident in it and that’s what you need to start thinking about and working toward. You can’t be taking breaks, not doing anything and then just coming back. You need to take it seriously because playing professionally is a lifestyle.’ After having that conversation and thinking about it, I was like ‘yeah, I need to go for it.’

RK: What would you say are your strengths as a goalkeeper?

LB: To be a good goalkeeper, you have to be able to save shots. That’s something that comes with the job, so I’d say that’s definitely a strength of mine — just being a shot-stopper. And communication is also key and being able to not really fear saying certain things and being the voice of what’s going on.

RK: In what areas have you grown the most since you arrived at Arizona?

LB: I’ve definitely grown. I used to be super indecisive. Like, ‘oh, do I come out for this ball? Should I say this? Should I say that?’ Once I’m comfortable with something, those nerves kind of go away, and then it makes me more confident in what I’m saying.

RK: What was your favorite memory at Arizona?

LB: At Washington State my freshman year, we were warming up and it was just so bad. I couldn’t hold anything, the grass was super slick, and it was just making me go into a panic. I could tell Paul was just not having it, and then he came up to me at one point and was like, ‘are you good to go?’ We need you to play well.’ That was actually the same game I threw a shutout and the same week I won Pac-12 Goalkeeper of the Week.

And (Paul) told me right after the game that he shot one shot as hard as he could (during warmups), and if I would not have saved it, I was not going to play. So I just think it’s so funny looking back at it.

RK: So what clicked?

LB: I don’t know. But me and him have talked and whenever I’ve had a terrible warmup, it has never gone into the game. It’s always been like a complete 180 where I’m like spot-on. So I feel like I have to have a terrible warmup to be good.

RK: When did you first start playing goalkeeper?

LB: When I first started playing club. I was like seven, everybody had to play goalkeeper at least once. But I really liked playing field. I was just crazy in love doing that. My two brothers play baseball and I’ve always kind of been a tomboy and not really scared of stuff because they toughened me up. So when I was nine they said, ‘you should play goalkeeper.’ But I really liked playing field, so they were like ‘why don’t you do half and half?’ because I was the only one that really wasn’t scared to take (a ball) to the face. It just didn’t freak me out. So I would do half goalkeeper, half field. And then when I was like 10 or 11, that’s when I really started love playing goalkeeper, so that’s when I started fully.

RK: What do you love about being a goalkeeper?

LB: It’s exhilarating. You have to be kind of crazy to be a goalkeeper. I know if a goal goes in people say it had to go through the whole team. No, it went through me last. That’s my only job. I need to just save the ball. So it’s just exhilarating having that feeling of knowing that you’re holding the game in your hands and it’s up to you to make the save. It’s just so much pressure on you and I enjoy it. I like being the one that it kind of comes down to in the end, and I love having to throw my body everywhere just to be able to keep it out of the net.

RK: What is special about this coaching staff and what would you tell players who are considering coming here?

LB: They really care about their jobs and the whole point of what they want to do is get the best out of each individual player, find what their strength is, and how we can utilize that. Before, I was playing just to play, and then once I came to college and being under this coaching staff, I’ve learned so much. From a soccer perspective, just knowing how to look through different lenses to figure out what we can do to win. They really they know how to focus in on what someone’s strength is and really build them up and make them confident in that one strength. Then it’s kind of like a trickle-down effect where you start building other strengths. And when you’re more comfortable, you’re more confident. It’s just a really good program to be a part of.

RK: One thing this program does is show-and-tell where you get in front of your teammates and teach them about one of your non-soccer interests. What’s yours?

LB: Tony tried to get me to do it at least three times but I don’t even know what I would say because I’m kind of an open book. Everybody knows I’m crazy and the things I like to do. But it could have been one of two things. One is I love singing, but I’m terrible. And I really like socks for some reason. I like socks that have designs on them. For (team) workouts, I would always say to wear your crazy socks on Friday.