At age 10, all was well in the soccer world of Leah Sutphen. And then her travel team goalie left to play softball, which forced her to don the keeper gloves.
It would be nice to report that it was a remarkable debut and everyone in attendance instantly exclaimed “That little girl has a bright future as a goalie!”
“I was awful,” Sutphen said. “I let in eight goals during my first game in net. It was definitely difficult to adjust to the position.”
What everyone in attendance did not realize was, they actually were looking at a future goalie.
“I quickly learned to love it,” she said.
Not just love it, but excel at it. The Bordentown resident is now in her fourth season in goal for the Hun School and helped the Raiders to a Mid-Atlantic Prep League (MAPL) co-championship last Fall. With so many players graduated, her role has intensified as a senior.
“I really think she is the key to our season,” coach Joanna Hallac said. “We’re a little young this year, there’s gonna be pressure on the back line and pressure on her and I think if she does what I imagine she will do, she’ll be the key to repeating and a key to that success. Obviously we’re a team, one person doesn’t make or break you; but having one keeper everyone is confident in and you know is going to be there for you if that mistake happens, I think really is going to be a difference maker for us.”
Sutphen comes off a campaign in which she made a career-high 128 saves. She recorded shutouts in the Raiders’ first two games this season against Ewing and George. She hopes to play in college but is unsure where, saying that, “I plan on an academically challenging school with a competitive soccer program.”
Soccer has been a Sutphen outlet since age 6. She started in Bordentown rec before moving on to the Bordentown Union travel team from ages 8 to 11. From there she joined the New Jersey Rush “to challenge myself even more.” The challenge grew three years later when she went to Player Development Academy at age 14.
“This was the most important move for me,” assured Sutphen. “This club has a great reputation, coaches and competition. I’ve been at PDA for four years, and I wouldn’t do it any other way.”
Hallac completely approves of the way Sutphen has done it. While she does focus on soccer for much of the year, Sutphen also plays basketball for Hun and is a record-setting javelin thrower on the Raiders track and field team.
“I want my kids to play more sports; I think the biggest challenge they come up against with that is their club coaches,” Hallac said. “The high school coaches grew up playing three sports, too, and want that diversity. She plays PDA year-round but makes it work to play three sports, and that helps her become a better soccer player. It all feeds into one another.”
Sutphen agreed fully, saying, “I know without a doubt that playing two other sports improves my game.”
The obvious question is, how?
“Basketball helps me improve with my footwork and handling skills, and track helps me with my conditioning and leadership skills,” Sutphen said. “Playing a sport each season allows me to keep in shape, and manage my time a lot better because I don’t have much free time.”
Hallac added, “the work you do in basketball with defensive slides can help with your footwork in soccer. The throwing a javelin gives you the upper body strength you need as a goalkeeper.”
The coach feels it goes beyond even that.
“It’s also good for her body,” she said. “The repetitive motion of just focusing on the muscles of one sport is really bad for them. It makes them more injury prone. Leah excels in all her sports, but her passion is soccer.”
Sutphen won’t argue with that.
“Soccer is the beautiful game,” she said. “It takes an entire, focused team to play well and come out with a victory. It’s a fluid game that demands grit, teamwork, and consistency in order to play well as a whole.”
Most people would think that when it comes to a goalie, that it also demands height. At 5-foot-7, Sutphen is living proof that’s not always the case. She makes up for it with athletic ability, desire that goes beyond the norm, and a true feel for the position.
“She’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached,” Hallac said. “Even though she’s 5-7 her vertical leap, her ability to judge the ball when it’s in the air, her ability to come out and win the ball, it’s all there. When you’re going up against her in the air on a cross, she’s gonna be right there in your face. She really is the whole package.”
Like most undersized athletes who excel, she has that chip on her shoulder and won’t be intimidated.
“Crosses have always been something that I was pretty good at,” Sutphen said. “I don’t think that people assume that about me, especially players on opposing teams. I honestly don’t mind, because I love proving people wrong and showing them that I won’t be underestimated. I think I do well with crosses because I am aggressive, not afraid of contact, and willing to come out for almost anything.”
Not surprisingly, her biggest weakness early in high school was on high balls. Hallac was impressed at how much Leah improved on that aspect between her sophomore and junior seasons by educating herself on how to approach them.
“High balls have always been my weak point, and I usually just used my height as an excuse for that,” Sutphen said. “But over the past two years I have worked a lot on plyometrics to improve my vertical (leap). This helped a lot with the jumping component, but I also worked a lot on my timing. Putting the two together was the key for perfecting high ball saves.”
Two other components a goalie must have is the ability to lead and to be able to shrug off bad goals and maintain focus. Being a team captain, it’s obvious Sutphen has the first quality. As for the second, she feels no keeper can survive without it.
“The key to being a good goalie is thick skin,” she said. “This position is not that easy or praised much. It takes a while to master the plethora of skills that a keeper needs for the game, and even then mistakes are bound to happen. A good goalie is one who can instantly forget about a goal being scored, or a mistake in the back. Mistakes are so obvious; for a goalie especially, because they usually lead to goals or scoring opportunities for the other team. Thick skin allows for you to acknowledge your mistakes, and correct them after the game.”
It took a while, however, for her to grow that extra layer of skin.
“I haven’t always had that mindset,” she said. “It took me years to develop the attitude of not dwelling on a mistake. I used to be so hard on myself whenever I made one, but I realized over time that having that kind of attitude leads to more mistakes, and puts my teammates in a worse place. I need to be encouraging to my team, so being down on myself and worrying about my mistakes is not an option.”
Fortunately for Sutphen and Hun, she makes a whole lot less than she did in that 10-year-old debut.