Duke goalie leads team to soccer’s College Cup

Robbie Church, Duke women's head soccer coach
Robbie Church, Duke women's head soccer coach

Let’s get one thing settled right away with Duke goalkeeper EJ Proctor. Her full name is Emma Jane, after her grandmothers. A family friend abbreviated it to the initials, and when a second-grade teacher picked up on it, Proctor had a nickname for life.

Although her family frequently uses her real name, EJ Proctor has been making a name for herself this fall. Taking over as the starting goalkeeper this season, the sophomore from Wilson Fike High has backstopped Duke’s surprising run to the College Cup, where the No. 3 seed Blue Devils (13-5-5) will take on No. 1 seed and reigning champion Florida State (18-2-4) in Friday’s second semifinal at 7:30 p.m. at Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park.

Penn State (20-3-2) and Rutgers (19-3-3) will play at 5 p.m. Friday, with the winners returning at noon Sunday to decide the NCAA women’s soccer title.

Duke has taken a tortuous route to a College Cup site only 20 miles from campus, playing games on both coasts the past two weekends. After a home win over James Madison, the Blue Devils played two games at Gainesville, Fla., including a victory over No. 2 seed Florida, and then flew west to California for a showdown with No. 1 seed Stanford.

“Being so close to campus is really nice,” Proctor said. “So many of our friends can come pretty easily. All my friends from home go to school in the area, UNC or (N.C.) State. It’s really nice so they can come, and for my family.”

Seven saves

Proctor said the Duke players didn’t make it a rallying cry – home for the College Cup – “but at the end of the Stanford game, it was nice to know we were going home and we didn’t have to hop on a plane again.”

With taller goalkeepers, there are always things they will be better at. I have to capitalize on things I can do that others can’t.

Duke goalie EJ Proctor

Duke punched its ticket for Cary by getting past Stanford in penalty kicks 3-2 after the teams played to a 1-1 tie. Proctor turned in one of her best games of the season, making seven saves in the 110 minutes of regulation and overtimes before taking part in the first penalty kick shootout of her college career.

Proctor saved the first shot and watched the second go wide of the net before surrendering goals on the third and fourth attempts. But she saved the fifth try – by Stanford goalkeeper Jane Campbell – to clinch the shootout and for a moment didn’t grasp that it was over until her Duke teammates stormed the field.

“Honestly I was trying not to think it through,” Proctor said. “I don’t keep up with penalty kicks watching other people do it. When she shot it, I wasn’t thinking about (the score). I didn’t realize it (was over) until they were all running toward me.”

As a freshman Proctor made one start and saw action in 11 other games but mostly bided her time behind seniors Ali Kershner and Meghan Thomas.

Entering this season, goalkeeping remained a question mark for an otherwise veteran Blue Devils team. Proctor was still an unknown quantity, and her backup, redshirt freshman Abby Pyne, hadn’t played in two years because of knee injuries.

“A major, major part of our season would be questions about our goalkeeping,” Duke coach Robbie Church said last week.

“I don’t necessarily know about the pressure,” Proctor said. “For me it was exciting to be in that position. I had an opportunity to start (once) last year, so it made me appreciate it a lot more. I put in more work this spring to become a better player.”

A new coach

Compounding the uncertainty was Proctor’s height. She’s only 5-foot-8, not small but shorter than her predecessors of the previous three years, the 5-10 Kershner and 6-2 Thomas.

But Duke had a new goalkeeper coach this year in Brandon Gwin, who had a track record of developing smallish goalkeepers in previous college stops at LSU, Rice, and South Alabama, and a stint at the Houston Dynamo Academy. Gwin’s protégés included Megan Kinneman at LSU and Amy Czyz at Rice, who both stood only 5-4 yet enjoyed record-setting college careers.

“Brandon has done a fantastic job with EJ,” Church said. “I think the first thing is he showed confidence in her. He believed in her. He understood that she could get the job done. She’s athletic, and he’s helped develop that and worked on her technique.

“If you believe you have to have a taller goalkeeper, it’s a negative. But he was open-minded.”

Kinneman, who now plays for the Houston Dash of the NWSL, has a history with Proctor as well. They were both regular attendees at the camp in Chapel Hill run by former UNC goalkeeper Tracy Noonan.

Questions answered

“I trained with her almost every summer,” Proctor said. “Megan had Brandon as a coach down at LSU, and she told me really good things about him. He’s taught me things like having a good starting position, an explosive stance, striking balls off the ground. I’ve always been known to hit a long goal kick. Now I don’t mind making a long drive to an outside back to make a long run.

“Brandon has kind of tweaked little things, how I approach the ball, when to be patient, when to be aggressive. He’s not big himself for a male goalkeeper, so that helps him understand what skills we have.”

If there were lingering questions, Proctor answered them early on. Playing behind a Duke back line that included two of her former CASL club teammates, Christina Gibbons and Morgan Reid, Proctor opened the season with five consecutive shutouts. (Pyne mopped up in the second halves of two blowouts.) The highlight was a stellar 10-save effort in a 0-0 tie at Penn State that won ACC defensive player of the week honors for Proctor.

Her 10 shutouts lead the ACC, and although Proctor didn’t earn a spot on any of the All-ACC postseason teams, she ranks fifth in the league in goals-against average (0.65) and third in save percentage (.828).

“With taller goalkeepers, there are always things they will be better at,” Proctor said. “I have to capitalize on things I can do that others can’t.”