Goalie keeps Cats’ games close

Nina Mandell

In almost every match, Northwestern women’s soccer playersassume they’re about to be digging the ball out from the back ofthe net. But then a burst of applause follows as their goalkeeperappears out of nowhere with the ball safely in her hands.

It’s something keeper Whitney Jones should be used to by now.Going into the 11th and 12th games of her sophomore year — Fridayagainst Iowa (0-6-2, 0-3-1 Big Ten) and Sunday against Minnesota(3-6, 0-4) — Jones has started every match during her time atNU.

And while Coach Jenny Haigh often is surprised at Jones’impressive saves, she said she was not surprised by her startingkeeper’s impact on the team.

“I was aware of her since she was a sophomore in high school,”she said. “I knew she has had a lot of ability and is a realcompetitor and just good goalkeeper.”

Haigh pointed to Jones’ understanding of the game, athleticism,mobility and pure courage as some of her strongest points.

Jones said she’s proud of how much she’s improved since herfreshman year.

“I think I’ve adjusted well and make smarter decisions,” shesaid. “I have a better feel of what’s expected of me and have moreconfidence in myself.”

Though the Cats (5-4-1, 1-2) have only a mediocre record thisseason, the players credit Jones for keeping the score close insome of their losing matches. She has pitched three shutouts thisyear, including a 1-0 victory against Southeast Missouri State.

Her coach and teammates disagree about when her skills were mostvaluable so far this season. While Haigh said she saw some amazingsaves from Jones against Southeast Missouri State, defender KatieGunderson said a save Jones had at Michigan State stands out in hermind the most.

“She’s playing amazing,” Gunderson said. “She’s come up withsome breakaway saves. She’s just very solid.”

Her teammates said consistency is something they really value,especially with a defense best described by Haigh as “improving.”The team has allowed 13 goals this season — seven in Big Tenmatches, tying the Cats for most goals allowed against Big Tenteams. But defenders insist they are catching up with Jones’ solidplay.

“We’re working on fitting together better as a team,” Gundersonsaid. “We’ve been very productive.”

And Haigh said she’s happy with the defense’s improvement.

“They’re really coming along,” she said. “They’re clearing well,and the decision-making has gotten a lot better.”

But until they’re perfect, Tori Bohannon said she feels betterknowing Jones is behind her.

“She’s always talking,” Bohannon said. “It’s reassuring knowingshe’s behind us.”

When the pressure’s on, Jones said she’s glad to be there forthe defense. And after so many overtimes, nothing makes her nervousanymore.

“It’s the way I’ve always been,” she said. “I love (overtime).We don’t need anymore, but I love it. (I’m) the last line ofdefense, and ultimately if the last person gets beat, I just needto step up.”

Reach Nina Mandell at [email protected].