DURHAM, N.C. – Junior Meghan Thomas and sophomore Ali Kershner both starting playing goalkeeper for two reasons: they were tall and nobody else wanted to do it. Both players embraced the challenges that goalkeeping offers growing up, and both outworked everyone they knew for the opportunity to play at the highest level. And now, after two years of waiting patiently on the sidelines, both Thomas and Kershner find themselves competing for the opportunity to start in the nets for the Duke women’s soccer team, one of the top soccer teams in the country.
“I am really excited to have the opportunity,” Kershner said. “If you had told me 10 years ago where I would be now, and that I would be fighting for the starting spot at one of the top schools in the country I would have told you that you were crazy.”
Kershner has played in five career games, compiling 120 minutes and owning a career save percentage of .667. The Palo Alto, Calif., native came to Duke after being named Santa Clara Valley Athletic League (SCVAL) Goalkeeper of the Year, SCVAL First Team All-League, and named to the Olympic Development Program (ODP) in Region IV for three consecutive years in high school.
Thomas, a native of Castle Rock, Colo., has played in nine games in her Duke career, tallying 251 minutes and has yet to give up a single goal as a Blue Devil. The 6-2 junior played a career-high 60 minutes in 2011 against 25th-ranked Virginia Tech, leading the Blue Devils to a 1-0 victory. Entering Duke in 2010, Thomas garnered ESPN Spring All-America Honors, Colorado All-State First Team and was a member of the ODP Region IV squad from 2006-09.
Despite the impressive resumes, both Thomas and Kershner have spent the past two seasons on the sidelines, while senior Tara Campbell, one of Duke’s all-time greats, protected the nets.
“Tara Campbell is one of the best goalkeepers we have ever had here at Duke University,” said head coach Robbie Church. “The stats really support that; shut-outs, goals-against average, consistency on and off the field. She’s a great scholar-athlete and she’s a two-time captain. She will be missed.”
Campbell played in 92 games during her tenure at Duke, logging over 8,000 minutes, while still maintaining a 0.91 goals against average and a .789 save percentage. With these staggering numbers, Campbell has cemented her name in the Duke record books in career saves (second – 302), career shutouts (third – 30) and goals against average (third - 0.91).
Although frustrating at times to be watching from the sidelines, Thomas learned valuable lessons from the experience, especially the importance of quality leadership from the goalkeeping position.
“I think being on the bench has taught me about sideline leadership,” Thomas said. “It is relatable to goalkeeper leadership because you are not necessary in the play at all times; you are a step back from it. Obviously learning and watching is the greatest way to pick up on skills and to identify things. You sit and watch and learn, and there are things that you would do differently but in the end, being able to watch someone else go through different circumstances really helps you adjust in your mind and see the game.”
Kershner agrees with Thomas, and comments that she learned more than just tactics and technique from watching Campbell.
“It was amazing just being able to watch [Campbell], not so much the actual goalkeeping part but the leadership and communication, which is a huge aspect of goalkeeping,” explained Kershner. “The best way to learn those skills is by watching someone else do it, and Tara has had so much experience with that, so Meghan and I have gotten to watch her and apply that to our own games.”
The Blue Devils concluded a record-breaking 2012 season in a 1-0 loss to top-seeded Penn State in the Elight Eight of the NCAA Tournament, after tallying a 15-6-2 overall record. As Campbell walked off the field in her final collegiate game as one of Duke’s best ever, both Kershner and Thomas pledged to continue the high standard of goal keeping at Duke, a list that includes names like Campbell, Melissa Carr (’95), Allison Lipsher (’07) and Cassidy Powers (’08).
“I just want to add to that list, whether it takes going out and running, lifting, whatever it takes, I’m going to do it,” Kershner said. “I want to be just like them, because I have seen what they’ve meant to the program and what kind of leaders they’ve become and that is the kind of person I want to be.”
The Blue Devils head into the spring season with two outstanding options in the nets, and Church could not be happier.
“They’ve been waiting for this opportunity,” Church said. “They’ve trained hard, they’ve worked hard in the weight room and they’ve worked hard with the coach for speed and agility. We believe in both of those goalkeepers. We think they are going to keep the high standard of goalkeeping that we’ve had the last 12 years that we’ve been here. Every player on our team really believes in both of these players and they will continue to do an outstanding job.”
In the end, Thomas and Kershner just need an opportunity. When playing behind someone like Campbell, who has logged over 8,000 career minutes and was described by Church as “one of the best goalkeepers we have ever had,” it is easy to begin to doubt yourself, but both Thomas and Kershner feel nothing but excitement.
“Having not gotten the opportunity yet and coming up on my senior year, it is a little different experience than I necessarily anticipated,” Thomas said. “I think in a way that creates more excitement and more ‘I am ready for this, I can’t wait to have this opportunity, I have sat the bench for three years, I can do this, I am ready for this.’ I think both Ali and I are both really excited. Ali and I are ready to have fun and embrace the opportunity.”
Finding a balance between being competitive and being good teammates is difficult for many programs, but Church has created a culture at Duke in which players realize and embrace that healthy competition is good for any team.”
“Meghan and I just need an opportunity, because we both have the capabilities or we wouldn’t be here,” said Kershner. “I think we are both excited. Obviously we are both going to be fighting for that starting role and it is going to be very competitive, but I think that is how it is supposed to be. That’s how we are going to get better and that’s how we are going to help our team. That is the whole culture on the team, there is not a single person who slacks off. We are always doing extra work. There is always someone in the weight room, there’s always someone getting extra touches on the ball outside and when you are in that type of environment you realize, you better be doing that stuff or you’re going to get passed.”
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