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Talented sophomore anchors Spartan's defense in net

October 22, 2009

Sophomore goalkeeper Jill Flietstra prepares to catch the ball during MSU’s 4-0 victory Sept. 6 against Central Michigan at DeMartin Stadium at Old College Field.

Photo by Angeli Wright | The State News

Jill Flietstra rarely makes a highlight reel save for the MSU women’s soccer team.

Instead, the sophomore goalkeeper evokes the feeling she knows where the offensive player is going with the ball even before the attacker does.

“The kid just has that magic of being able to figure things out,” MSU head coach Tom Saxton said. “Honestly, she doesn’t have to make a lot of hard saves, because … she makes the save before she makes the big save — she’s cutting plays off and that type of thing.”

Since she replaced Lindsey Wrege in net as a freshman a year ago, Flietstra has shown flashes of potential that could make her one of the best Spartans’ goalkeepers in MSU women’s soccer history.

After taking over in the middle of the third-to-last game of the regular season, Flietstra was in goal for the Spartans throughout the Big Ten Tournament and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

This season, Flietstra has what Saxton called “one of the best years in goal of any MSU keeper.” Although an injury-riddled midfield has the Spartans (8-2-4 overall, 1-2-2 Big Ten) struggling a bit in Big Ten play, Flietstra is the keeper Saxton knew he was getting when he recruited her out of Unity Christian High School in Hudsonville, Mich.

Her .54 goals-against average is best among Big Ten keepers and is 13th nationally. She also ranks first in the Big Ten with a save percentage of .887, 11th in the country.

But numbers only illustrate a small sample of what Flietstra brings to the table. It’s her composure — whether MSU is leading or behind — that not only makes her special player, but a special teammate.

“It’s really hard to knock her confidence, and she just has a sense of calmness that is kind of contagious,” said assistant head coach Stacy Heller, who works with MSU goalkeepers.

“The players, they look at her and they can trust her to make a big save, so they don’t have to worry about doing anything extra because they can trust her back there.”

Aside from her confidence, athletic ability and work ethic, Flietstra believes two other attributes set her apart from other keepers. First, she doesn’t shy away from criticism, instead embracing and expecting it.

Secondly, Flietstra fashions herself as a soccer fanatic. She loves to read and study the game, both at practice and while watching soccer on TV.

Even when she works as a teacher at youth soccer camps, Flietstra said she continually is learning, something Heller said stands out while watching her.

“She’s got a passion, and her understanding of the game is unbelievable,” Heller said.

“She always seems to be a step ahead and she reads the game well. Just her decision making when she has the ball — you can really tell that she’s been a student of the game.”

Flietstra started playing soccer when she was 4 years old, began playing keeper when she was 8 and has known almost nothing but success since.

As a four-year starter at Unity Christian, Flietstra, along with current MSU sophomore forward Laura Heyboer, led the Crusaders to four straight state championships, including three undefeated seasons.

On their club team, the Bloomfield Force, Flietstra and Heyboer won a State Cup and a national championship at the national club tournament, where Flietstra earned Goalkeeper MVP honors.

Since she stepped in net for the first time, Flietstra loved being a goalkeeper for the same reason many players can’t handle the position.

“It’s just so exciting and there’s lots of pressure to do well,” Flietstra said. “It’s just exciting to know — well, not exciting — but to know there’s a lot of pressure on you, and if you make one mistake it could cost you the game. It’s just very mental. Being goalie is a lot more mental than physical a lot of the time, in games especially, and I like that.”

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Heyboer and Flietstra have played together since they were first-graders on an elementary school playground, but how Flietstra handles those pressure-packed situations still amazes Heyboer.

The two have played hundreds of games together throughout their careers, but the one moment Heyboer said defines Flietstra was during the first round of last season’s Big Ten Tournament. Tied, 0-0, at the end of regulation with Illinois, the teams went to sudden death after both teams made their first five penalty kicks.

MSU began sudden death, with each team making a goal.

Then the Spartans went ahead with a goal in the seventh round, before Flietstra stopped a shot by Illinois’ Jamie Alvis, sending MSU to the next round of the tournament.

“She was just amazing,” Heyboer said.

“(Penalty kicks), I’d be so nervous and I think any goalkeeper would be nervous having someone shoot at you from that close with that much pressure, but she loves it. Having a goalkeeper have that much confidence in herself just to take those kind of shots is something that our whole team drives on.”

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