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‘The sky is the limit’ for Arizona goalkeeper Hope Hisey, who is settling in as starter

Hope Hisey
Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Some athletes like to hype themselves up before games. Hope Hisey prefers to dial it down.

As her teammates sing and dance, the Arizona goalkeeper coops up in front of her locker (before home games) or finds a quiet spot on the bus (before road games) so she can get lost in a crossword puzzle.

“They just calm me down,” Hisey said. “There’s definitely a lot of excitement and adrenaline, and if I put my focus somewhere else I feel like I’m able to get in the zone better.”

The ritual started this summer. The freshman was looking for some way to help her cope with the uncertainty that comes with joining a new team at a new school. Her teammates find it amusing.

“I got some looks and some of them will just laugh at me,” Hisey said. “But at the same time, I think they think whatever works for me.”

They certainly aren’t going to stop her. Not with the way she’s been playing.

After splitting time with redshirt freshman Kendyll Humphreys in the non-conference season, Hisey has seized Arizona’s starting goalkeeping job since the start of Pac-12 play.

In five league games, four of which were against ranked teams, the Tucsonan has stopped 20 shots while surrendering six goals, a number that is a bit deceiving since two of those tallies were penalty kicks.

With some help from an experienced backline, Hisey shut out then-No. 10 UCLA a couple weeks ago and followed it up with a clean sheet against then-No. 15 Washington State last Thursday.

The former Canyon del Oro basketball star made four saves in Pullman—leaping, diving, and even using her legs to keep the Cougars off the scoreboard.

WSU coach Todd Shulenberger said Hisey “played out of her mind” — the same phrase Arizona defender Morgan McGarry used to describe the first-year keeper.

“Oh my God, Hope was unreal,” echoed senior midfielder Kelcey Cavarra. “There were times where I really thought the ball was going in and we were going to have to fight back for the tie, and she just came out with amazing saves.”

Hisey’s emergence has solved the most pressing task facing the Wildcats entering the season: finding a replacement for all-time shutouts leader Lainey Burdett. She was not only a steady keeper but a vocal leader as well.

Hisey is still trying to amplify her voice on the pitch—that is a tough task for a freshman and she is not the most outgoing person as it is—but her play has done enough talking for her.

As Cavarra put it, the Wildcats respected Hisey when she joined the program, but now they know they can trust her too.

“With her coming in and having those huge saves...I mean, we didn’t expect that initially,” McGarry said. “And having seen that she can do those and stop anything that comes her way, it just gives us more confidence to be able to step and try to get in the attack. And also if we do happen to let someone by us and get a shot off, that she’s right there behind us.”

Associate head coach Paul Nagy, in charge of training Arizona’s goalkeepers, said Hisey’s freshman season has been impressive, particularly because the Pac-12 is usually an unwelcoming place for players her age. Even the smallest slip-ups in this conference can lead to big consequences.

But Hisey’s maturity has shown—and grown. Nagy used to coach Hisey during her club days with FC Tucson and remembers her body language drooping anytime she had a bad game.

Now, she moves on from mistakes. No better example than when she surrendered four goals against Santa Clara—and got brutally heckled by Bronco fans—only to respond with the highlight-filled stretch she is enjoying now.

“Paul has helped me realize you’re going to make mistakes, but the important part is responding from those and not dwelling on it too much,” Hisey said. “Because at the end of the day, you’re just going to have to put your next foot forward and help the team win.”

Besides, Hisey knows she has to bounce back if she wants to keep the starting position. Humphreys pushes her everyday in practice.

“It’s great,” Nagy said. “They need it. If you went back and talked to Lainey, Lainey told me her freshman year when she split time and had to compete against Rachel (Estopare), it was probably the most fun she had, but also helped the most in the development part of it because if she wasn’t on her game, she wasn’t playing in the next one.

“And so she had to bring it every day for training, every day for practice...and I think it’s great for both of them right now. They need it to keep striving to push each other, to keep getting better and better, and so we have two good goalkeepers that can play at any moment.”

Ultimately, Hisey’s ability to control the six-yard box won her the starting job.

“On corner kicks, she is elite in the air,” Nagy said. “She judges the ball really well, she can punch anything out. Washington State got 12 corner kicks and she handled every single one. Well, there’s one probably she didn’t handle that great, but besides that one, she handled all of them really well. When she’s aggressive in her little area that we want her to control and go get and save our team, she does a really good job with that. And to be totally honest, in goalkeeping in general at any level, the hardest part is to be able to do that.”

Another hard part is mastering the mental side of the game, like staying sharp during the long and lonely stretches between saves. That’s where the crossword puzzles tie in.

“It’s 85 percent mental for [goalkeepers] of things that you can’t control, and then all of a sudden, in a split second, you gotta make a save and win the game for your team,” Nagy said. “And it might be twice a game they need you to make the big-time save. And the other times they need you to organize and do other aspects than actually be playing.

“That part’s hard: to sit back there and deal with all that for most of the game. Whereas the (field) players can run, grind, get a touch here, go find the ball. There’s a lot of times you don’t want [the goalkeepers] to find the ball, but they still have to be leading and engaged and all those kinds of things. So whatever gets her ready is fantastic.”

Hisey called her freshman season an “amazing experience so far.” After all, she is starting for her hometown team and the Wildcats are in solid shape to make their third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

But she warned that they are “not even close” to reaching their potential. Neither is she.

“To see how far she has come is pretty awesome, but she still has a long way to go,” Nagy said. “And if she can keep driving...and keep learning about the position and the little quirks on this set here when someone’s shooting or to turn her body this way to make this save easier...then the sky is the limit for her.”