Erica Owens: Brilliant Goalkeeper

(Photo by BYU Photo/Mark Philbrick)

Being a goalie means being on the wrong end of a coin flip. In order for a goalkeeper to do her job, the other team has to come very close to scoring. Forwards miss plenty of shots each year, but a goalkeeper's miss gets put on the scoreboard.

"It's either a spectacular play, or you fail and let a goal go in," BYU goalkeeper Erica Owens said. "Usually, I prefer to put on a good show as opposed to letting them score."

Owens helped lead the BYU women's soccer team to a school-record No. 2 national ranking and a spot in the Elite Eight last season. The Cougars allowed 13 goals in 24 games last season thanks to Owens, an experienced backline and a team committed to a solid defensive effort.

BYU's 2012 competition would have had to play almost 95 games or 8,568 minutes extra against the Cougars to score as many goals as BYU's offense did in 24 games. Owens was fifth in the nation in goals against average (GAA), but she also played nearly eight games more than any other keeper in the top five.

Before last season, Owens had only played 25 minutes during her freshman season three years earlier and had never started a game. She sat because of injury and McKinzie Olson in her first three years as a Cougar. She trained and watched and prepared for last season. The only thing left for Owens was to do it in a game, which isn't always a given.

"I think it's always a question," BYU head coach Jennifer Rockwood said. "We knew what Erica was capable of, but as far as on South Field, in front of a big crowd, you never know how someone is going to react to that.

"She proved from the very first time on the field she had the mental capacity and mental toughness to do what keepers do, which is sometimes not touch a ball for 30 minutes then have to make one big save that could be the difference in the game."

Owens was a bit more elated to find she was the keeper her teammates and coaches thought she was.

"It was one of the most fulfilling feelings I've ever had," Owens said. "First stepping on the field was unbelievable. It felt like I was in a movie almost, because of how exciting it was and the atmosphere of it."

Owens had not only worked on positioning and footwork, but had a presence on the field and off. Before ever starting a game, her teammates voted her a captain for the 2012 season along with senior defender Cami Jensen.

"(Erica) has all those great qualities of a leader," Rockwood said. "She had earned the respect of her teammates through the three years that she trained and worked hard. Although she didn't play, her team knew what she was capable of, seeing it on a day-to-day basis."

Owens had also honed her skills as someone who can influence the game, even without touching the ball.

"Her presence on the field is felt by everybody, and that's what is so important about a keeper -- their presence," Rockwood said. "Our opponents, just based on Erica's presence, know she's going to be able to save more shots."

Even in that sense she isn't the normal goalkeeper.

"Most goalies are normally pretty intense," Owens said. "But I like to have more fun out there than I feel most goalkeepers will show, because after three years of waiting to get out there, there's no way I could not have fun. It's just a blast."

While her 5-foot-11 frame can be imposing between the ball and the goal, Owens has the opposite effect on her teammates.

"She has a great confidence and composure about her," Rockwood said. "She doesn't get really up or really down. She seems to kind of go with the flow, which is helpful for a keeper because there's such tremendous pressure and stress. Her ability to have confidence in her abilities, have confidence in her teammates, really brings a lot to our team."

Once the field, her skill came through as well. Owens and her teammates went undefeated in the month of September 2012 for the first time since 1997. She led the West Coast Conference in GAA, save percentage and total shutouts. She led the Cougars to an unbeaten conference record and their first WCC regular season championship. Three times last year Owens shut out opponents for three or more consecutive games.

In the nine games decided by one goal last year, Owens had nearly as many saves as she did in the other 15. In four of those games, she had five saves or more and shut out two opponents in the NCAA tournament -- Auburn and Marquette. In the Elite Eight, she turned away eight shots from the eventual national champion North Carolina Tar Heels, but US women's national team player Crystal Dunn was responsible for the two goals that knocked BYU out.

That defeat has only driven Owens to be better this season, for both herself and the team.

"I let in a lot of goals last year that I think I can stop this year," Owens said. "I'm holding myself accountable for making sure we don't get scored on as much.

"We have the skill. We have the talent. It's just whether we believe we can do it. Last year, it was the silent confidence that we knew we were capable of taking it all the way. If our team can have that same belief we can do the same thing, make it even further, beat North Carolina."

Owens feels she has plenty left to accomplish in her final year in Cougar blue. Individually there's two saves she hasn't made that would make her highlight reel complete, a penalty save in a game not during a shootout and a save in the upper corner of the goal -- the toughest spot to reach.

"I want to do one of those," Owens said. "It'd be really cool and I've been working on my footwork leading into it."

Actually pulling it off is a different story; it requires a perfectly placed shot by the offense and a perfectly timed leap at full extension by the keeper.

"It seriously is just about a brief moment of insane courage where you throw your body into the air and hope you make it," Owens said. "I'd like to do that. Hopefully opponents aren't getting shots that are like that, but if the occasion calls for it, I'd love to make that kind of save."

It isn't too far of a stretch. Owens is an athletic, athletic keeper. Her height, reach and jumping ability make her an excellent aerial goalie, and her athleticism adds to her footwork and positioning in the grass.

Something a little more out of the realm of possibility for Owens to accomplish this year is scoring a goal. She was originally a forward in high school. Her coach switched her to keeper, and while it wasn't her favorite at first, the position grew on her.

"It crushed my dreams," Owens said. "Everyone always wants to be a forward. That's what I wanted to do, but I guess that wasn't what I was meant to be as a soccer player.

"What helped was my team did really, really well the year I switched. We made it all the way to the state finals and beat our rivals for the first time in 18 years. It was a phenomenal year for our school. I wasn't scoring goals for the team, but anytime I got a shutout the paper would make sure to mention my name, so I started to think maybe (being a goalie) is good."

Her time as a forward wasn't wasted. Her years as an attacker still remain as a look behind the glass of every opponent she faces.

"When it comes to taking shots and attacking the goal I know what to do that makes it hard for them to score," Owens said. "Or at least what I would do if I didn't want myself to score on me. It's an interesting position to have.

"I think if I were in their position where would I want to go right now and I make sure they don't go there. I push them to the most inconvenient place possible. I'll make sure they have the hardest shot or the hardest breakaway.

"I'll make sure it's always a challenge."

Another season-long journey awaits, and Owens and the Cougars have high expectations because they went so far last season. Getting back to the Elite Eight might be a good season, but a Final Four berth is where the Cougars are aiming and Owens is an important component in that.

"We're going to need more of the same," Rockwood said. "We may actually need her a little bit more. Last year we relied so much on the experience of our backline, and Erica was a little less experienced. This year it's going to be flip-flopped. Erica now has the solid experience and confidence, and we'll probably need a little bit more out of Erica. I think certainly she's capable of giving that to us and is certainly capable of being better this year than she was last year."

That doesn't come as a surprise to Owens, who was expecting it.

"It's not pressure as much as it is a sense of responsibility," Owens said. "I actually feel pretty calm about the season. I know I've been preparing this summer for it, and if I go out with confidence I'll be able to play pretty well. It's mostly just excitement."

This story appeared in the Gameday Magazine on Saturday Sep. 7, 2013