By Matthew Ondesko, Managing Editor Photos: Geoff Schneider/Sports Union
To the casual fan, reflexes often are a goalkeeper's most exciting attribute. The ability to react in split-seconds, contorting your body to block shots from close range or shift your torso to get some part of your body on a goal-bound shot creates heart-stopping moments.
It takes a lot of practice and patents to be one of the best keepers in Western New York. With so many good keepers in the area, it’s those that can make the routine save, and the most difficult saves, that separate the good from the best.
Alden High School’s Alexis Grassl has flown under the radar for the most during her career as a Bulldog. Maybe it’s because she plays in a lower division than some of the other keepers in WNY.
Whatever the case may be, people are missing one of the better keepers in the area. She recently broke the record for most shutouts in a career, a feet that isn’t easy to do in high school soccer. During her career, Grassl has had to be at her best. This Bulldog team grew up together, and it showed as they one their first division crown since 2003.
Grassl had something to do with that. Her stellar play between the pipes allowed her teammates to be more aggressive. Her team knew with her back there they were able to take chances that they may not have been able to take otherwise.
That’s what happened when you have an elite keeper. One that will keep you in games when you have no right being in them. One that will come up big and make the key saves and the right time.
Playing the keeper isn’t as easy as people might think. It takes a lot a lot of practice to be as good as Grassl is. She puts in countless hours trying to be the best keeper she can be. While at times they may not be called on to face a lot of shots in a game, it still makes it tough mentally to stay focused.
One mistake could cost the team the game, but it’s the type of pressure that Grassl likes.
“I love playing as a goalkeeper. It takes a completely different physicality than field players and requires a clear mindset. I love the clear-headedness I have while playing, thinking of nothing but the game in front of me, and I love the feeling of a good save. Although landing after diving may not always feel the best, the few moments in the air when my hand connects with the ball feels amazing—it’s prideful,” stated Grassl. “Being mentally in the game is of the greatest importance, too: doing this temporarily takes away any worry or problem I may have. And most of all, this position is humbling. I think a lot of goalies take the fault of goals against their team very personally—I’m one of those goalies. It’s humbling to know you tried your best and that, sometimes, your best isn’t enough for your team to win.”
Big games define careers. Succeed and enhance your reputation, fail and diminish it. That’s the type of mindset keepers have to have in this day and age of playing the sport. Keeper are looked upon to lead the line. They get all the credit if the team has success, and all the blame if they lose. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a 17-year old, and one that some fall prey to.
The mental side of the game maybe more important that the physical side. Mentally a keeper has to want it. They have to want to be the best on the pitch at all times. It’s part of their DNA.
“There’s no game that I don’t prepare—both mentally and physically, in warm-ups—for a lot of shots. Teams can and will play differently from game to game, so the best thing I can do is not get overconfident or arrogant before games, but to prepare for anything that may be thrown my way,” stated Grassl. “I get nervous before many games, and I just like to take a deep breath beforehand and put my mindset into the game.”
In every sport records are made to be broken. That’s why there are records in the first place. Some records may never be touched, like the 56 game hitting streak Joe DiMaggio. But, breaking records is part of sports.
There are times that a record can overwhelm a player. It can consume everything that they do. As a player gets closer and closer to the record the pressure mounts. The pressure can get to anyone.
Grassl knew she was getting close to the shutout record. Alden has been building over the years, and this team was getting better and better. As the team got better, the shutouts started piling up, it was just a matter of time.
“The record wasn’t something I even had any knowledge about prior to the beginning of the season. When I broke the record for shutouts in a singular season, I didn’t know until I broke it, and I think I preferred that because it wasn’t in my head at all. It’s better now that I broke this record because the team can just focus on the team and how we’re playing,” stated Grassl. “Thinking about the record when I wasn’t playing wasn’t a problem, but I tried to think about it the least I could in general, because I didn’t want it affecting the way I play. Just keeping my head in the game before and during the game was the key to it. I think that’s why I talk so much during games—it prevents my mind from drifting off. I try to focus on how my team plays as a whole rather than just myself.”
Like Grassl, this Alden team has flown under the radar for years. They have been building toward success and this year it finally came to a head with a division title knocking off power Tonawanda.
Also, like Grassl, this team doesn’t get a lot of recognition. Playing against smaller schools has that effect on people. What people don’t know is how good Grassl, her teammates, and the Alden Bulldogs really are.
“Alden is huge in soccer—locally. We have house, travel, and indoor soccer leagues for all age groups and we even host our own tournament, the Alden 4v4. I love how our team is familiar with each other even before playing on the same team, and we all know how the others play because we’ve all played with each other before. The team I play with now is phenomenal. I have an amazing defense—especially my stopper and sweeper—and midfielders. I have a teammate whose shots I sometimes won’t stop in practice in fear of breaking my wrist,” stated Grassl. “I have another teammate who can dribble the ball through an entire team, but she doesn’t because she won’t showboat herself—she thinks of the team and not herself. I love that my team can give each other constructive criticism and we’re all mature enough to work to fix the issue instead of taking it as an insult towards their personal play. My team is a great group of people, even outside of soccer. They have great character, too. There are some players that deserve way more recognition than they get. My defense and midfielders, in my opinion, don’t get enough public credit, perhaps because there aren’t any statistics associated with them (especially the defense). It’s even harder as a smaller school to receive recognition, so it’s a huge deal when someone on the team, or the whole team, does.”
What’s more interesting about the success of Grassl is the fact that she doesn’t play for one of the big travel team in WNY. You won’t see Grassl on the rosters of the WNY Flash, GPS or Empire.
Instead, Grassl plays for her local club in Alden. In this day and age of players playing for super teams amid travel leagues, it’s interesting to see her decision to stay local. Playing for Alden is about comfort. She is comfortable playing for her travel team.
Sometimes big travel teams aren’t for players.
“I owe my entire goalkeeping career to club soccer. It all started in my first years of house soccer, when I shyly offered to play keeper in practice, and my first coach told me to come out to the ball. That’s my first memory of playing keeper, and perhaps the best advice I’ve ever received. House soccer is also the most fun I’ve had while playing. It’s playing against your friends, and the results of the games isn’t important at all. It’s nice to see everyone helping each other up and laughing with their opponents,” stated Grassl. “The Alden 4v4 tournament was also fun in that way—especially playing in the adult league, because it’s a lot of people that you used to play with, and sometimes against coaches you’ve had before. Playing in travel was more competitive, but less than that of varsity. Travel soccer gave me great practice before varsity season started—a lot more shots on net in a game situation and a lot of room for improvement. Playing up to the U18/U19 level since the 8th grade forced me to learn the discipline of that level of soccer early on. I’m grateful for getting to play up to those levels at a younger age, and that the girls I played with then were so nice and accepting of a new, young goalie. It gave me a lot of confidence when the varsity season came that year.”
Grassl is an Alden girl through and through. That’s why her senior night was so special. It was a celebration of all things Alden. She started her career as a keeper in Alden. Stayed to play travel for Alden and now has lead the high school to success during her senior season.
It’s like a fair tale ending, one that isn’t over yet. This team took care of business during the regular season, but the playoffs will represent a different animal. Grassl hopes her senior year in extended through November.
“This being my last season in high school soccer still hasn’t set in. I can’t imagine how I’m going to feel once my high school soccer career is over. It’s going to hit hard when it ends—but I’m trying not to think about that. I’ve played on this team for four years; the idea of it all being over is intangible. I just try to play and practice in the day and not think of this as the last go-around,” stated Grassl. “What meant the most to me during my senior night was all the family that came to see me. My first soccer coach and his kids, who I grew up playing soccer with, were all there. My parents and grandparents were there. I couldn’t thank them all enough for their contributions to my soccer career. They’re all what made my successes possible. I think that’s similar to what was going through my senior teammates’ heads. That and the contributions of my teammates, who’ve all worked hard to make it to where the team is, and how close we’ve come. Reminiscing on team memories may have been the strangest part—we all share our favorite soccer memories during the senior recognition and remembering memories from years ago was so strange when they seem like they happened just yesterday. But I must reemphasize how special my family made that night; a million thanks wouldn’t even scratch the surface as to how grateful I am for them.”