Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Worth keeping

Steinlage's unlikely path to MSU makes him one of program's best goalies

October 22, 2009

Redshirt junior goalkeeper Avery Steinlage stretches with a trainer at halftime of MSU’s 2-1 victory against Bowling Green Wednesday at Old College Field at DeMartin Stadium.

Photo by Nick Miller | The State News

Avery Steinlage could have excelled at any sport. With a vertical jump of more than 30 inches, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Steinlage has the ups of a forward in basketball. And with his “cat-like” reflexes and strength, he has the skill-set of a big-league slugger. But Steinlage uses his athletic ability and size for a different purpose — to protect the goal for the MSU men’s soccer team, something he dreamt of since first putting on goalie gloves at age 5.

“Athletically, he’s just a freak of nature for his size,” junior defender and co-captain Colin Givens said. “He can easily windmill dunk a basketball on a regulation rim. It’s those athletic skills that allow him to make the crazy saves when he has practically no time to react.”

This season, the junior goalkeeper from Grand Haven shattered the NCAA all-time consecutive shutout record, going 1,318 minutes and 26 seconds without allowing a goal, a span that stretched back to last season.

“As part of the defensive unit, it’s something we can really hang our hats on,” Steinlage said. “It’s a special record and something we really take pride in.”

Steinlage wasn’t too shabby last year either, being named first-team All-Big Ten and recording 10 shutouts in 16 starts.

After a heartbreaking end to the 2008 campaign, he wanted to take his game to the next level and entered this season sporting a new look — losing 35 pounds and shaving off his grizzly beard.

His hard work in the offseason paid off, and he’s already posted six clean sheets this year.

Steinlage has transformed, both physically and mentally, to become “the rock” in goal for the Spartans.

Under the radar

When Steinlage attended an MSU soccer camp the summer before his senior year of high school, none of the MSU coaches had ever seen him play.

He had never tried out for an Olympic Development Program team and he didn’t attend a large high school.

But he made an immediate impression.

“We were doing an exercise we call ‘goalie wars’ and he was just a man playing with boys,” MSU goalkeeper coach John McElroy said. “We knew right away he was something special.”

Steinlage won two state championships at Division 4 Muskegon Western Michigan Christian, but didn’t receive many looks until he transferred to Spring Lake High School before his senior season.

After attending the camp, MSU coaches kept a close eye on Steinlage and were impressed with his athletic abilities and confidence in the net.

But his decision making was described as impulsive and sporadic — traits the MSU coaches weren’t fond of.

Still, they believed Steinlage had good upside and offered him a partial scholarship.

“We viewed Avery as a beautiful gem that just needed to be polished,” then-head coach Joe Baum said. “He hadn’t played at a high enough level yet, but we felt he could get adjusted to the college game.”

And it didn’t take long for Steinlage to accept the offer.

“I committed right after they offered,” Steinlage said. “It was a no-brainer for me. My mom was a swimmer here and my older brother and sister both graduated from here. It had always been a dream to play at MSU.”

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Competition

Steinlage was redshirted his first year on campus to learn the ins and outs of the college game from MSU’s standout keepers, Jason Tillman and Chris Austin.

“My freshman year, I didn’t know if I wanted to take soccer that seriously,” Steinlage said. “But I learned from Jason and Chris on how to be the goalie for MSU. I just tried to watch and take it all in.”

Steinlage didn’t see any action his freshman year of eligibility, as it was Austin’s senior year.

But when Austin graduated, the starting goalkeeper spot was up for grabs, and it came down to Steinlage and redshirt freshman Jeremy Clark.

Clark was a highly touted recruit, playing for the Olympic Development Program Region II team for five years.

The MSU coaches purposely brought in two talented keepers to prepare for the departure of Austin, so both could push each other and duke it out for the starting slot.

“That competition made us both better,” Steinlage said. “It was a hard-nosed competition and we really pushed each other.”

Baum said the goalies were neck-and-neck entering last season, but he declared Clark the starter.

“We felt that Jeremy was a little more steady and Avery was a little more spectacular,” Baum said. “Both were playing very well, but we went with the person who was more steady. Maybe that comes from me being an older guy, choosing steadiness over flair.”

Switching them up

The Spartans struggled early last season, went 1-3 and allowed nine goals in their first four games before Baum decided to give Steinlage a chance as the starter — not necessarily because Clark was playing poorly, but because the team needed a change, Baum said.

After the Spartans lost to UC Davis 4-2, Baum told Steinlage he would get the next start, which was a Sept. 12 home game against Buffalo.

“I was so nervous before that game,” Steinlage said. “I didn’t sleep the night before. After every play in that game, I was looking over to the bench to see if the coaches were walking around or getting upset with me.”

But the coaches were seated and calm. The Spartans won the game 1-0, much to the thanks of an acrobatic diving save by Steinlage off a free kick in the 86th minute.

“That was one of those moments where I looked down to the other coaches on the bench and said ‘Wow,’” McElroy said of Steinlage’s save. “Not many goalies could have made that save.”

From then on, Steinlage was the starting keeper and the Spartans went on a roll, going 12-2-2 to finish the season.

“When Avery started his first game, we were still a team trying to find ourselves,” head coach Damon Rensing said. “But Avery was getting more and more confident and so was the team. It was hard to make a change when the team is on like that.”

Memorable year

With six starting seniors, Steinlage was a little timid when he first took over the starting job.

But the more he played in game situations, the better he became at communicating with teammates.

“At first I just didn’t want to mess up,” Steinlage said. “I wanted the team to trust me and I didn’t want to let anyone down.”

With prolific striker Doug DeMartin up top for the Spartans, the coaches knew the team could score. So they stressed making the consistent saves to their goalkeeper.

“Last year, we just wanted him to make the saves he’s supposed to make,” McElroy said. “But he surpassed that in so many ways. He’d make the fantastic saves, not just the routine ones.”

Steinlage made the consistent saves and more, posting eight straight shutouts to end the season and leading the nation with a save percentage of 0.925, almost 0.020 higher than the next goalkeeper.

For his efforts, he was named first team All-Big Ten and also was the 2008 Defensive Player of the Big Ten Championship, as the Spartans won both the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships.

But the dream season came tumbling down on Nov. 25 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Steinlage posted a shutout through 110 minutes, but the scoreless draw went to penalty kicks, where the Spartans lost 3-2 to Illinois-Chicago, also ending Baum’s storied career. The gut-wrenching loss ended the season and was tough for the entire team to swallow. But Steinlage took it personally.

Working harder

Because of that game, you might see Steinlage running through the streets of East Lansing at odd hours of the night with his iPod at full blast.

You might see him on the practice field at DeMartin Stadium with just McElroy — taking the time to work on every aspect of his game.

And you might see him sitting at the end of the bench during pregame warmups, focusing and getting psyched up before stepping onto the field.

“Right after that loss, I said to myself, ‘Remember this feeling, because I never want to feel this way again,’” Steinlage said. “It’s a (bad) feeling to feel like you let yourself and everyone else down.”

None of Steinlage’s coaches or fellow players blame him for the loss that afternoon. But Steinlage held onto those feelings of disappointment and made it his motivating factor this offseason.

He lost 35 pounds this summer and entered camp in the best shape of his life.

“There are a lot of team requirements we ask of kids in the offseason,” McElroy said. “He felt a need to get better and to really exceed those expectations.”

Hit the switch

When Steinlage steps onto the field, he’s all business.

“Avery is a big time leader on the field,” Givens said. “He’s extremely intense. It’s intimidating to play against him and sometimes it’s intimidating to be on his team.”

But in the locker room, Steinlage is the team clown, playing pranks and doing whatever it takes to lighten the mood.

“There’s no doubt he’s the team’s goofball, I mean just look at his mustache,” Rensing said. “His humor can relax some of the guys, but he knows the balance of it and when it’s time to be serious.”

Somewhere deep down, there’s a switch in Steinlage that he’s able to flick off when it’s time to compete, whether it’s for a game or practice.

“Freshman year, I didn’t have the switch and I messed around too much,” Steinlage said. “But I finally realized I wanted to take it more seriously and pursue playing soccer after college.”

And Steinlage’s father, Robert, said he’s witnessed his son mature in the past year.

“The success he had last season really fueled him and he’s matured because of it,” Robert Steinlage said. “Everyone grows up at different rates, and he saw what he had the potential to accomplish.”

Still learning

With 10 of 12 Big Ten games this season decided by one goal or fewer, having a keeper with a reliable set of hands is vital for the success of any team.

Steinlage earned the trust of both his coaches and teammates, becoming one of the most decorated goalkeepers in MSU history.

And he still has one more season at MSU to sharpen his game before attempting to enter the professional ranks.

The coaches agree Steinlage’s ceiling is still far from reach.

“Without a doubt, he’s one of the best we’ve ever had,” Baum said. “We’ve had a lot of good ones, but he’s as good as any of them.”

And with another year of eligibility following this season, the book on Steinlage’s MSU career is yet to be finished.

“Time will tell where he ranks and a lot of it is up to him,” Rensing said. “But he’s up there with the best already.”

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