Some moments stand frozen in time. Not just because they were great moments, but because they lead to even greater things.
Take Nicole Rende, for instance.
At age 9, she was playing in goal for the Hamilton Wildcats soccer team and not thinking much of it.
“I didn’t really know if I liked it or not, because I just stood there waiting for a ball to come to me,” Rende said. “I did not really understand it.”
Then came a game against the New Jersey Rush Blue. There was Rende, standing in the goal with nothing to do, when suddenly an opponent launched a shot from just outside the 18 that appeared headed over her head.
“I jumped as high as I could, and caught the ball and everybody started cheering,” Rende said. “In that moment, I felt great. That is when I knew I would become a goalkeeper.”
Not just any goalkeeper, but a pretty darn good one. The Hamilton resident and Notre Dame High sophomore is in her second season as the Irish starter, and has made continuous strides over the first two years. Through ND’s 10-3 start this season, Rende allowed just nine goals and recorded five shutouts. She was averaging over seven saves per game.
Not only that, she has taken control of things like every goalie should.
“Throughout the season, we’ve seen her grow,” coach Victoria Camera said. “I know there’s still a lot of other areas she can grow in. But she’s shown tremendous growth thus far with being vocal in the back, and leading, even though she’s one of the younger girls. She has such an important role on the field, and we really spoke to her how important it is to talk and communicate. If the girls are confident in you as a goalie, that’s half the battle. And we’ve seen that.”
Rende began playing goalie almost by default, as she and her teammates would switch to different positions in travel ball until that fateful day of “The Save.” A year later she helped the Wildcats to the 10U State Cup championship.
‘Focus is one of the biggest keys of being a good goalkeeper because you can be in a very boring game and all of a sudden a shot comes to you and you have make that amazing save.’
Upon arriving at Notre Dame, Rende figured she would have time to ease into high school soccer by playing on the JV team. But when the expected starter came down with mononucleosis, the freshman got the emergency call.
Let’s just say she didn’t handle the news too well.
“To be honest with you, I freaked out,” Rende said. “I was so scared because being a freshmen on varsity is intimidating. Once I was put on the team and became familiar with my teammates, it gave me more confidence.”
Camera, who was in her first year, was worried she might have to find yet another goalie before she ever coached a regular-season game.
“It’s funny, she almost didn’t play just because it all hit her so hard,” the coach said. “It was like, ‘I’m gonna be the starting goalie for the varsity team at Notre Dame?’ It’s not just a new team, but she’s coming in as a freshman, and it’s a whole new school. We just knew a little bit about her. We saw her in a few games, and we were impressed by her.”
Rende got through her fears and was in goal for the opener against East Brunswick. And more fears arrived.
“I was nervous and had a bad feeling I would make a mistake,” she said.
Everyone should be so mistake-prone. Although the Bears took a 1-0 win, Rende allowed just one goal while making 11 saves. She yielded three to eventual Group III state champion Allentown in game two, but only allowed three in the next four games as her confidence settled in. During one stretch in October, Rende registered five straight shutouts and seven in eight games.
“I feel my biggest growing pains were getting acclimated to the girls and how they played and just getting used to the team in general,” Rende said.
She was helped by the presence of fellow freshman/Hamilton resident Bella Pesce, who starts at outside back and defensive midfield. The two were teammates on the NJ Rush travel team and “when Bella was brought up to varsity it did give me a level of comfort because I had a friend.”
Camera, who also hails from Hamilton, could see it made a difference.
“Bella kind of took her under her wing,” the coach said. “Bella is a little less shy than Nicole.”
She also gave Rende a pretty good defender to work with.
“Bella has brought some great aggression to the team,” Camera said. “Even though she’s only a sophomore, she’s probably one of our most , if not the most, physical players on the team. Having her back there has been a huge asset to our defense.”
Having Rende has been just as huge, especially since she is playing at a much higher comfort level this season, which is only natural.
“This year has changed a lot because I’m no longer a freshman, and I have a lot more confidence in myself this year than last year,” Rende said. “That is one of the biggest changes.”
Camera added that, “She has the skills, the natural talent, and her having confidence in herself, the girls can see that and therefore are confident in her. It goes both ways. Last year the girls knew Nicole was good, but some days or some games we were afraid Nicole wasn’t mentally all there. Some games the nerves kicked in. But I think she’s overcome a lot of that this year.”
That confidence has joined forces with all the physical attributes Rende possesses that are necessary for the position. As a three-sport athlete who also plays basketball and lacrosse for the Irish, she has good athleticism. She’s also strong and has decent size.
“Not too tall, not too short,” Camera said with a laugh. “She lies right there in the spectrum where she’s supposed to be.”
Another nice quality is the necessary mindset of putting a goal behind her and maintaining focus.
“When she allows a goal she’s still mentally in there and we try to engrain that in her,” Camera said. “We’re not all perfect here, mistakes happen, we let goals in. Some shots just aren’t savable, and I think mindset wise she does bounce back. She realized it happens and she moves forward quick. Same thing with a loss, she bounces back, she doesn’t let it get to her. You gotta move on and that’s what the games are for.”
Rende does move on, and understands that as the last line of defense, she must always have her head in the game.
“For me, being a good goalkeeper is taking control,” she said. “It’s giving good direction, knowing my teammates have confidence in my ability, always coming to games and giving 100 percent and staying focused. Focus is one of the biggest keys of being a good goalkeeper because you can be in a very boring game and all of a sudden a shot comes to you and you have make that amazing save.”
Which she did at age 9, and has never looked back.