When the call came from Maryland coach Cathy Reese, Kasey Howard was sitting in senior English class at Broadneck High pretty well convinced her days as a lacrosse goalie were just about over.
Howard, who led Anne Arundel County in save percentage her last two seasons at Broadneck, figured she wasn't meant to be a college athlete when things didn't work out with another Division I program. Instead, she would go to Maryland for the education.
Then her cell phone rang with an opportunity Howard had never imagined.
It was already March and Reese desperately needed a backup goalie for the 2009 fall ball season — so much so that, in the airport on the way to a game at Dartmouth, she asked her players whether they knew anyone she could reach out to. One of two Terps keepers planned to study abroad in the fall, and Reese didn’t want to be caught with one goalie.
Then-freshman Karri Ellen Johnson recommended her friend and Broadneck teammate. Reese asked for Howard's phone number and called her on the spot.
"I saw this random number on my phone and I'm in the middle of English class," Howard said, "but it was like free period. We weren't doing anything, so I'm like, 'Can I answer this?'
"I answer it and I knew who Cathy was and she's like, 'Hi. Is this Kasey? This is Cathy Reese from University of Maryland. I'm wondering if you have some time to talk to me.' I called her back after school and she was like, 'What are your thoughts about possibly playing here next year? We're looking for a goalie and I've heard about you.' I think my jaw hit the floor."
Even after that, Howard couldn't quite believe it would pan out.
"I didn't tell anyone. The fact that the other opportunity fell through, I thought there was no chance," said Howard, who met with Reese the next day and was offered a spot on the team.
"All freshman year, I would wake up in the dorm and be like, 'I can't believe I'm playing lacrosse for Maryland.' We were ranked No. 1 and won the national championship my freshman year and I was still in shock I was even there. This year, I think I'm finally realizing that it's true," she said with a laugh.
After three years as a back-up, Howard earned the starting job this spring. More excited than nervous, she quickly turned what appeared to be a weakness into one of Maryland's strengths. She has a goals-against average of 8.14 and a save percentage of .439.
"She really stepped up for us big in a lot of early games and has really taken ownership of our defense," Reese said. "She's a good communicator. She's a good director back there. … She sat and watched [All American Brittany Dipper] for three years and now as a senior she finally had her opportunity to show what she can do. She might look little in the cage, but she does a really big job for us."
The 5-foot-2 Howard has played a key role as the top-seeded Terps take a 21-0 record into this weekend's final four, where they will be looking for their second title in four years and their 12th national championship — 11th in the NCAA. They meet No. 4 Syracuse on Friday night at 7:30 at Villanova Stadium.
Playing behind Dipper for three years, Howard learned a lot about the physical and mental sides of the game. She now deflects credit to her defense for forcing opponents to take tough-angle shots, but Howard has made her share of point-blank snuffs, many at critical moments.
"We have tremendous confidence in her," senior defender Iliana Sanza said. "She's been with us all four years as our back-up practice goalie and we know what she can do in practice. It's awesome to see her get her spot and her position this year. She's been ready, she's stepped up and we have all the trust in her."
Twice Howard has been Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Week and she has had big performances against some of the best opponents — 11 saves in an early-season 19-11 win at Syracuse, a career-high 14 saves in a 20-10 win over No. 7 Penn State, and nine saves in the 12-8 ACC championship win over No. 3 North Carolina.
"She just played with a lot of confidence and did a nice job," Syracuse coach Gary Gait said of the Feb. 17 meeting. "We know we've got to shoot well and take better quality shots, so that's kind of our focus."
Johnson, an All-America midfielder who graduated last year after rising to second on Maryland's all-time career goals list, knows how hard it can be to slip a shot past Howard, who despite her height can still cut down angles by playing a few steps forward in the crease.
"Kasey has such quick hands and amazing reaction speed," Johnson said. "No matter what fake you throw, it's like she already knows the ball's final objective. This wasn't ideal for me because she had memorized where I liked to shoot. She stuffed me in middle school and continued to do so up until college, and she always did it with a smile."
Howard, 22, does just about everything with a smile, still unable to get over her improbable rise.
In her early years, Howard played sports in the shadow of her twin sister Allison. Kasey said she was chosen for teams as a youngster because her parents didn't want to drive to two different practices, so they told coaches if they wanted Allison, Kasey comes too.
"I was always the worst on the team, just there for a good time" Kasey said with a laugh. "And when I switched to goalie, I was like, 'Oh, this is my thing. I'm actually on the team because I'm good, not just because Allison's with me.'"
Allison's interests soon turned to other things, but Kasey kept playing after finding her niche in the goal in middle school.
She brings resilience to whatever she does. It started with simply surviving after she and Allison were born three months premature weighing just two pounds each. It continued in everything from discovering her skill in the goal to shaking off the inevitable goals she allows to finding her way into the final four with a team looking to rebound from last year's national semifinal loss.
So grateful for every waning moment of her college career, Howard will soak it all up in Villanova before moving on to teach and coach lacrosse in England next year.
"Away trips are always fun when you get to go for more than one night and I'm just excited to play," Howard said. "Everyone on this team really loves playing together and we're excited to have another opportunity to be together, because not everyone gets that this time of year."