At one of Arizona’s first practices this spring, assistant coach Paul Nagy pulled several field players aside, put them in goal and lasered a shot in their direction.
Some jumped out of the way; others hung in to make a save.
“It’s fun just to have a little joking during practice,” said defender Morgan McGarry.
But the drill served a purpose. When the Wildcats open their spring season Saturday against BYU, they will only have one goalkeeper on their roster, soon-to-be sophomore Kendyll Humphreys.
That means someone has to be able to man the net in case of an emergency. Right now, the nod would go to forward Jill Aguilera or midfielder Iliana Hocking, who were willing to stare down Nagy’s shots.
“They’re actually pretty good,” laughed forward Brooke Wilson.
Maybe so, but the Wildcats hope it doesn’t come down to that. Arizona plans to play Humphreys every minute of every game this spring. It’s a critical chance for her to get some seasoning.
Humphreys was Lainey Burdett’s backup in 2018 and has not appeared in a game since she tore her ACL in November of her senior year of high school.
Burdett was a four-year starter, two-time all-conference player and UA’s all-time shutouts leader, so Humphreys has big gloves to fill and not much time to get up to speed.
“She’s really comfortable within the team in practice. It’s different when the whistle blows and you’re actually playing a game against somebody else,” said Nagy, the team’s goalkeeper coach. “So I want to see how comfortable we can get her because she’s got a lot to learn still.”
Greener than most
Humphreys is relatively new to this whole goalkeeping thing. A former forward, she took up the position in eighth grade when her club team’s goalie abruptly quit.
“My coach was like, ‘Who wants to go in goal?’” Humphreys said. “And I was like, ‘I’ll go in goal, I just ate.’ And (my coach) was like, ‘you’re pretty good there. Maybe you should play part-time in the field and part-time in goal.’”
The Chandler native enjoyed the pressure and leadership aspects that come with being a goalkeeper, so she decided to pursue the position full-time.
“It was definitely different just because it’s so much different than any field position,” Humphreys said. “But I went to a lot of private sessions because I had to make up for the time I wasn’t a keeper. And I went to all the club trainings, and I just did as much as I could to get to the point where I needed to be.”
She developed quickly. As a freshman in high school, Humphreys attended a UA summer camp where she outshined all the other goalkeepers. Her play drew Nagy’s attention and he grew more excited about her potential when he learned how new she was to the position.
“She was smashing the ball in the net because she’s great with her feet, she can make saves, she has big hands too, so she can hold shots really well and she’s a really good shot-stopper.” Nagy said. “And from that we started recruiting her.”
By the end of her club career, Humphreys was rated a three-star prospect by TopDrawerSoccer and won two National League championships with the Scottsdale Blackhawks.
Humphreys is still grasping some of the nuances of the position, like how to deal with crosses, but she says she feels like she’s been a goalkeeper for a long time.
She certainly looks the part.
“She’s very intimidating,” Wilson said. “She’s not super loud intimidating, but just the way that she presents herself and the way that she walks across the field, you can tell she’s got a little fire in her. ... She’s someone that I’m nervous to take (penalty kicks) against.”
Nagy says Humphreys has “come a long way” since arriving on campus last July.
Just making her way back from her ACL injury, Humphreys spent the 2018 season soaking up all the tips and tricks Nagy and Burdett had to offer.
This spring, Humphreys has been putting everything into action, getting all the reps she can handle, one of the perks of being the only goalkeeper on the roster.
“The cool part about Kendyll is she’s very coachable,” Nagy said. “She hasn’t been playing goalkeeper very long, but she’s ready to absorb anything that you give her. Like, I talk about a new save (technique) and she just says ‘sure, sell me what to do, coach’ and she does it. And that part’s awesome. That’s helping her game evolve more and more.”
Nagy jokes that he called Humphreys “Mini Lainey” last season, since the two were always joined at the hip at practice.
And, well, they look alike too.
The 5-foot-7 Humphreys is a few inches shorter than Burdett, but has a similar build and the same blonde hair.
The similarities seem to stop there. Nagy said Humphreys is more even-keeled than the high-strung Burdett — “nothing really bothers her,” he said — and they have different playing styles.
Burdett is great with her hands, a master at handling crosses and has the size to cover the entire frame. Humphreys makes up for her lack of height with explosive athleticism and is clever with her feet, thanks to her background as a forward.
“Kendyll can help us now keep the ball and relieve pressure,” Nagy said. “If our backs are facing her, they can play her feet. She’s really good and comfortable with her feet. She can ping the ball wherever she wants, so that’s an element that is going to raise our game as a team back there, which is really awesome.”
Maybe the most impressive thing about Humphreys is her fitness level.
“One of the players said to me recently that she’s really increasing the standard for goalkeeper fitness, strength and conditioning,” said head coach Tony Amato. “Typically goalkeepers, the fitness part is not there. It’s usually not super important to their game.”
Nagy believes it will aid Humphreys’ goal coverage and stamina late in games.
“She’s got a great vertical, she’s quick, she’s strong, like does all those things,” he said.
Humphreys is the only goalkeeper on the roster this spring because two others transferred. Meredith Reinhardt, who will be a senior in 2019, left for St. John’s after the 2017 season. Makayla Aman, who came in with Humphreys in 2018, transferred this offseason.
That Humphreys is different than Burdett is not a drawback.
“There’s been a lot goalkeepers that have come in here and transferred out because they couldn’t be Lainey,” Nagy said. “They came in here and they’ve moved on. Kendyll embraced it and listened to me when I said, ‘I don’t want you to be that. I want you to be Kendyll.’ And I think Kendyll has a very, very high ceiling to be a really good Pac-12 goalkeeper as long as she keeps getting better at what she’s good at. Because what she’s good is different than what Lainey is good at. She can be a really good goalkeeper. She’ll just be a little bit different and our team will embrace that.”
Finding her voice
One thing Humphreys is trying to emulate about Burdett is the way she communicated and directed the defense, an important job for a goalkeeper though one that is not easy for a first-year starter.
“I need to adapt to how Lainey communicated to the defense so that they don’t have to adjust to how I speak,” Humphreys said.
That is important, Humphreys said, because no one on the roster has played in a collegiate game without Burdett there to back them up.
“I think she’s trying to find her voice regardless in that realm,” Amato said of Humphreys. “When you are a freshman goalkeeper, taking command of that feels different and that’s normal. It feels different than when you are a third- or fourth-year player.
”I mean, same with Lainey. When she communicated out of the back with her club team, it sounded different than her freshman year with us. You almost just get quiet and make the saves. Kendyll had that experience in practice in the fall. I think she just was quiet and wanted to just make saves and now she’s trying to find that voice again.”
Nagy said it will only help Humphreys that she will be surrounded by an experienced supporting cast. The Wildcats return eight starters including their entire backline, which consists of two seniors, a junior and a sophomore.
That unit allowed just 0.90 goals per game last season, the fourth-best mark in the Pac-12.
“We don’t have to rely on her to make all the saves that a couple years ago our goalkeepers needed to save,” Nagy said. “We’re at a point now where our team’s in a good spot. They know what to do, they know what’s going on, they can help her and it makes it so if she misses something communication-wise, they can make up for it and save the day for her where it’s not always on her to keep us in games.”
Still, there will be times when the Wildcats need a big save or two. Nearly half their games last year were decided by one goal. Such is life in the Pac-12.
The Wildcats will add FC Tucson’s Hope Hisey in the fall to compete with Humphreys.
Until then, she is their only set of hands.
“I don’t really think of it as pressure,” Humphreys said. “I think it’s exciting to step into it because it’s been a while since I’ve played in a game.”