April 16, 2009

By Amy Farnum Novin

No matter how talented a freshman athlete is when they are thrust into a starting position without any collegiate experience, coaches are usually a little nervous. But when University of Massachusetts goalkeeper Katie Florence stepped on the field in February, head coach Alexis Venechanos was pretty confident the rookie would eventually be successful.

Venechanos was immediately impressed with Florence's presence and maturity that she displayed during her recruiting trip to Amherst - qualities the coach seeks out in her goaltenders.

"That's what we look for as a goaltender - someone who is level-headed," said Venechanos. "You have to be kind of crazy to play goalie already, but having that maturing is something we definitely look for."

At the same time, Florence knew that Venechanos' playing experience at Maryland and time as an assistant coach at Northwestern - both perennial national powers -- would help her develop her own game that much more.

"That was a big factor in my going to UMass," said Florence. "A lot of schools do not really have goalie coaches and (Venechanos) was such a good goalie in college, I knew that I would get a lot of good coaching from her."

Florence received Venechanos' full attention when she started training in the fall. The Minutewomen suffered some injuries at the position, and Florence ended up playing every single minute of fall ball. Despite her inexperience, Florence's promising play showed Venechanos why the freshman should get a chance to start in the regular season.

"We played a lot of top competition, and I think the game that stood out to me was when we played the Canadian National Team," said Venechanos. "You throw a freshman into playing against grown women, and she played great. I think she got some confidence in that game."

"When (Venechanos) recruited me, she told me that the best goalie at the time would play," said Florence. "I just knew I needed to work hard and show her what I could to do to earn that spot." Florence notes that Venechanos has concentrated on developing the goalkeeper's communication skills on the field, which has pushed her game - and the team's success -- to another level.

"My communication has gotten a lot better, and it is so important in running an in sync defense," said Florence. "She's helped me a lot with that. Every day she makes sure I'm doing all the little things right."

With a roster that sports 14 freshmen, the Minutewomen began the season with an 0-3 record, including two losses to Top 10 teams, but started to turn around the season with victories against Harvard and then-No. 13 Dartmouth. Since a 22-5 loss to Northwestern on March 25, UMass has reeled off five straight victories - all against Atlantic 10 opponents - taking over the top spot in the league standings.

"We have such a young team so I think everyone had to learn how to play with each other," said Florence. "Most teams have the luxury of nine or 10 returning starters, but most of our starting players are new to the program. At the beginning of the year we were having trouble with our transition, but now everyone knows how their teammates play. We're really meshing well together on the field."

Florence has played a key role in the team's recent success, posting a league-leading 5.87 goals against average and .627 save percentage in Atlantic 10 action. The native of Norfolk, Mass., has surrendered fewer than five goals in three of her last five games, and was named A-10 Rookie of the Week on April 13 for making 12 saves, picking up three groundballs and causing three turnovers in a 16-4 victory against Temple last week.

"With every game, she's gained confidence and has been able to try new things," said Venechanos. "She'll keep on getting better, and we're trying to get her to be the best she can. The girls love playing for her, and that's the biggest part of our team's success right now. There's a trust and a confidence with our defense and it trickles to our attack. There's a good chemistry right now and that start's from Katie's calmness and poise in the cage."

UMass concludes the regular season with a home game versus Duquesne on April 17, and an away contest against St. Bonaventure on April 19.