Soccer looks to replace goalkeeper

Sophomore goalkeeper Kate Webster warms up for a game against UAH in 2015. Webster emerged as the replacement for the conference save percentage leader from last year, Shelby Thornton.

The UNA soccer team went into the 2016 season with high expectations, but ran into an unexpected setback at the beginning of preseason Aug. 14.

Junior goalkeeper Shelby Thornton, who led the Gulf South Conference in save percentage last season, decided to step away from the game due to personal reasons, said UNA coach Chris Walker.

“She was struggling with some family issues,” Walker said. “Whether it’s for the long term or not, we don’t know. But for right now, it was what was best for her personal life. Obviously we wanted her to stay, but we all understood it’s what she wanted to do, and we supported her.”

The loss of Thornton left two goalkeepers on the roster: returning sophomore Kate Webster and incoming freshman Savannah Stewart.

Walker said Webster was the likely starter throughout preseason, but Stewart gave her a run for her money.

“We didn’t sign either one of them to be a practice player,” Walker said. “The competition went back and forth, but Kate has obviously done well being the returner and knowing what to expect.”

Webster and Stewart each competed for the starting spot, but it was Webster who emerged as the team’s starter in the season opener at No. 2 Columbus State Sept. 2.  

It was a tough debut for Webster, however, as the Lions fell 3-0 to the Cougars. Despite allowing three goals, Webster had four saves for UNA. Columbus State out-shot the Lions 16-8.

“These first four regional games are going to be tough,” Walker said. “It’s good competition. Hopefully, we’ll be all set by the time we start conference and hit the ground running with Shorter away.”

Webster said she expected to compete with Thornton for the starting job before her departure, but found a bit more confidence when she became the incumbent starter.

“It was kind of a weight that was lifted off my shoulders,” Webster said. “When I did play with (Thornton), there was a lot of pressure on me for some reason. This year, I feel so much more comfortable. I knew I still had to compete for the spot though.”

Although Stewart was gunning for the starting job, Webster said she wanted to mentor her less-experienced teammate, as Thornton did for her last season.

 “I think that one year really helps when you’re still adapting to your team,” Webster said. “There’s a huge difference between high school and college, so I think that one year under your belt is definitely a step up.”

Stewart said she was not sure if she would be competing for the starting spot when she first signed, but was willing to help the team however she could.

“I did feel like I could compete, but I didn’t really know if I could get the starting position,” Stewart said. “I was going to work as hard as I could and see what happens. Now, I feel like Kate and I are neck and neck, but she’s a great keeper.”

 Stewart said having a teammate like Webster drives her to be better.

“She’s making me push my hardest every practice,” Stewart said. “That’s why I get so mad when I have a bad practices because I know we’re right there competing. It makes me want to do my best all the time.”

Walker said despite making Webster the season-opening starter, the competition between the two may never end.

 “If one has a bad game, the other one can play,” Walker said. “I’m not someone who splits half-a-game here and half-a-game there. If you’re playing well, you’ll stay in. It should be exciting.”