To be a defender or a goalkeeper — that was the question for a young Jimmy Hague. Hague had played soccer his whole life, but the choice to velcro up the gloves and slip on the long-sleeved jersey was a defining one in his athletic career, and one both he and MSU head soccer coach Damon Rensing are happy he made.
“We always switched off, so it was at a point where I think we were like 11 or 12,” Hague, the 6-foot-4 redshirt-sophomore said, remembering how his best friend eventually ceded the position to him in youth soccer. “He was too short to play in goal anymore, so he was like, ‘I’m just going to play in center back from now on, and you can play goalie.”
Hague has played soccer since the age of four, but always in an amorphous position. Once he finally made the change to keeper, it stuck. However, he had a lot to learn even upon coming to college at MSU.
“When I first came in (to MSU), I was definitely the worst goalkeeper here,” Hague said. “I had a lot of learning to do because I was very, I would say, raw. My technique wasn’t where it needed to be.”
Hague knew that he wouldn’t start his first season and that his second year would likely follow a similar path. While coming to a school with one of the country’s leaders in save percentage, Zach Bennett, might have intimidated and warded off many recruits, Hague saw it as a resource.
"(Bennett) just taught me so many things throughout those two seasons,” Hague said. “It was great to just learn under him, and I just try to be as good as he was or better, someday.”
Hague did not play a second of game-time action his freshman year. His sophomore year was no more hands-on. All of his time was spent observing and studying, whether from MSU goalkeeping coaches Paul Gilbert and Bret Mollon, Bennett, or secondary keeper Quinn McAnaney.
When McAnaney and Bennett both graduated after the 2015 season, obvious concerns festered around the all-important position.
“Well, I think Jimmy took care of a couple of those questions in the spring, but spring games are different,” Rensing said. “Any time at any position where there’s no experience, you’re always a little bit cautious. But I thought ... he’s got a good mental makeup, he’s obviously got the physical tools, so we just needed to throw him in the fire.”
Since taking over as the starting goalkeeper for MSU, Hague has not allowed more than two goals in a single game. Yet the all-elusive shutout evaded his grasp.
“I think he needed a couple games under his belt,” Jimmy Fiscus, a junior defender who has started both of the past two seasons, said. “There was a couple of decisions that he could have done better. They never really harmed us that much, but I think he’s learning as he gets more games under his belt.”
True to Fiscus’s word, the preparation and experience fused in the Spartans’ game against Rutgers, as Hague notched his first shutout. In the following match-up, he got another against Oakland.
Then, it was on to the University of Michigan.
Hague already earned his rite of passage on the team by the time U-M boarded the bus to East Lansing, chaperoning the Big Bear Trophy. But the rivalry game was the one that would truly test his mettle. He passed heroically, spryly repelling an 81st-minute breakaway with a game-rescuing and shutout-preserving stop.
His teammates and his coaches all pointed to the 1-0 win as his breakthrough moment. Fiscus said it bolstered his confidence. Rensing said it was the ultimate culmination.
Hague admitted it was his “best moment so far.”
“Personally, I had a very good game,” Hague said. “That was like my breaking point, where I really came into myself and claimed this role.”
As of [Thursday] morning, Hague had shutouts in [five of his last six] appearances. [His .842 save percentage ranked 17th-highest in the nation and the second-highest in the Big Ten.]
“You either kind of sink or swim, and thus far, Jimmy’s swam,” Rensing said.
While the transition to starting goalie was both tedious and trying, Hague knew his teammates supported him all along.
“I knew he was a good keeper, I knew he always has been, and I knew he always had what it took,” Fiscus said.
Looking back, Hague had other offers to attend other schools, like Oakland University or Western Michigan University, he might have been able to play sooner.
But that’s why Hague chose MSU. He welcomed the wait and embraced the education.
Once in a while, McAnaney and Bennett text their successor, just to check in. They and everyone else know, however, Hague has got it from here.
“With goalkeepers, too, you look for a presence,” Rensing said. “I think his presence in the box has grown with his confidence. And I think again, probably to some degree Jimmy (Hague) had doubts if he could do this, and the more that he continues to succeed, the more you can see his presence and confidence grow.”