Minutes after watching his No. 12 seed UC Irvine team fall, 1-0, to No. 5 seed Maryland in the third round of the NCAA men’s soccer tournament Sunday night at Ludwig Field, coach George Kuntz had one wish, and it had to do with freshman goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
“I wish he was a senior, because we may have to see him sometime again,” Kuntz said admiringly. “He’s good. Even the DVDs we have on that guy don’t give him credit. Those saves, you saw with your own eyes. Not only those things, but just the simple things. Crosses, not mismanaging those crosses, handling those crosses well, comfortably, composure – it really settles a team when you have that much confidence in your goalkeeper. If you’re in the backline or midfield and you see guys picking balls out of the air like that, you’re doing a pretty good job. On our side of it, something we talked about was trying to pull crosses away from him, and I don’t think we did a great job of that in the first half. We could have done better.”
Steffen finished with five saves – several of the diving variety – to propel the Terps (15-3-5) to a quarterfinal date with No. 4 seed California (14-4-2) on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in Berkeley, Calif. It did not match his career high (he made seven in a 1-1 double overtime tie with Old Dominion on Sept. 24), but his performance did not escape the attention of senior forward and reigning Hermann Trophy winner Patrick Mullins.
“Almost as a goalie, you want to be a fire preventer,” Mullins said. “You want to see what’s going to happen before it does, and I think he puts himself in great positions to make those saves. He’s got great athletic ability and reaction to be able to make those saves. I’m just real proud of him. He’s matured a lot over the year and grown and I think he’s shown that tonight. He’s a leader out of the back through communication and coming up with big saves like that. I expect nothing less out of the kid.”
Despite the presence of three more veteran goalies on the roster in juniors Keith Cardona and Jordan Tatum and sophomore Cody Niedermeier (Broadneck), Steffen has started every game this season while adjusting to the collegiate level of soccer.
Asked if he was reacting better than he had been in the beginning of the fall, Steffen said, “I definitely do. I was a little rusty in the beginning of the year, but I’ve definitely learned a lot and the experience of the games has helped me a lot, too.”
While Steffen has helped Maryland record four shutouts in its last five games, both struggled at the outset. Steffen surrendered 12 goals in the first five contests, and the Terps went 1-2-2. But coach Sasho Cirovski pointed out that Steffen had not played for 2½ months prior to arriving on campus to rehab an unspecified injury.
“And the first couple games, he was still nursing a little bit of an injury,” Cirovski said. “By the third week, he started to feel pretty good and it has been a slow ascension. Every practice, every game, you see him get better and better and better. We knew we had a special goalkeeper when we recruited him, but he’s an even better person and because of that character, he’s shown tremendous strides and growth throughout the season to now where I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in the country.”