College soccer: River Hill grad Erica Suter has led Johns Hopkins to the NCAA Sweet 16

The season began with tears, confusion, and perplexity, on a large, grassy field in Madrid, Spain. The Johns Hopkins women's soccer team was on a preseason trip through Europe. In Madrid, Hopkins played the Spanish national team and lost — badly.

Hopkins assistant coach Tim Wittman pulled aside senior captains, Erica Suter and Pam Kopfensteiner, and he berated them, declaring that such a loss was intolerable. Coming off an NCAA Division III Tournament Elite Eight appearance in 2010, Hopkins had very high expectations for 2011; a loss, even to the Spanish national team, represented a failure to meet those expectations.

"He was like, 'When we get back to the States, you have to bring this team together, this is unacceptable," said Suter, a River Hill graduate. "Pam and I just got real emotional and cried.

"We were like, 'Oh my God, what are we going to do with this team? Oh my God, we can't do this.'"

If Suter ever ruminates over a snippet of doubt, it should be considered an anomaly — one that generally exists outside her normal realm of reasoning; and yet, for her to assume responsibility for Hopkins' shortcomings is completely within her frame of character: she is confident but selfless, and her probity is as conspicuous as her obsidian hair, or her distinctive trot.

That Suter was coming off her most productive season at Hopkins, having supplied the Blue Jays with 33 total points as a junior, did not weigh on her mind in Madrid. Nor did the fact that she was on the brink of breaking Hopkins' career records in goals, assists and points.

Suter, in fact, was utterly unaware of her career numbers. Nothing mattered more to her than keeping the season alive, and supplying breath for what seemed like a winded, wheezing team.

"My main focus this year is to obviously be better as an individual player," she said. "But more, to contribute to the team, because we're undefeated, and it's a very scary thing.

"I want to feel like I'm helping the team, and I don't want to lose-that's the main thing."

So far, Hopkins hasn't lost. At 21-0, The Blue Jays have dismantled teams, outscoring opponents 92-9, beating many teams by five and six goals, thus earning a No. 4 ranking in the NCAA Division III national polls. Earlier this month, Hopkins won the Centennial Conference tournament championship, Suter was named the conference's Player of the Year, and Hopkins coach Leo Weil was named Coach of the Year.

But Suter's time at Hopkins is nearly over. She has, at most, four remaining games as a Blue Jay, including tomorrow's Sweet 16 match against eighth-ranked Amherst at 1:30 p.m. in Grantham, Pa.

The season, Suter said, has flown by, as have her four years at Hopkins. In the season's early going, Suter was incredulous about her seniority, admitting that at times she still feels like a freshman.

"I think it will hit me when everything is completely over," she said.

Suter finds some solace in knowing that, win or lose against Amherst, she will still have soccer. She plays semi-professional soccer for the Chesapeake Charge, of the Women's Premier Soccer League, and has even toyed with the idea of taking her degrees in German and international studies to Germany, where she has family, or to Holland, and playing soccer in Europe.

Of course, all that is in the distant, distant future. Suter now is fully, inexorably, infused in the present, and in Johns Hopkins' final few games.

In her first few seasons at Hopkins, Suter was remarkably consistent, at least statistically: she scored 12 goals as a freshman, 11 as a sophomore, and 13 as a junior; and in doing so she led the Blue Jays in goals and points each year. For the most part, the Blue Jay offense followed suit, scoring 51 goals in 2008, 50 in 2009, and 77 in 2010.

In 2008, Suter's freshman season, Hopkins advanced to the NCAA Division III Tournament Sweet 16 for the first time. Hopkins advanced to the Elite Eight the next two seasons, and both times was eliminated by Messiah, a three-time national champion and two-time runner up.

Weil named two issues Hopkins has solved since last season: lack of confidence and of goal scoring. The former, being intangible, can't be coached. "I've tried to tell them for years that I thought they were good enough," Weil said. "But there's always been that bit of doubt."

But the absence of goal scoring, and of relentless and continuing offensive pressure, was something Weil could impress onto the team immediately.

Hopkins' current offense resembles a personified merry-go-round on grass, whereas each player rotates meticulously through positions, and no player is in the same place for very long. At Hopkins, forwards and midfielders are essentially interchangeable.

Suter, traditionally an outside midfielder, drifts from left touchline to right before eventually positioning herself above the goal. Then she drifts back to midfield, her black hair pulled back tight, her body angled forward, her arms held at her hips and bent at the elbows, her hands curled at the wrists.

With the ball at her feet, Suter's back straightens and she splays her arms for balance. Her bright cleats nudge the ball quickly and silently down the pitch. She beats single defenders, splits double teams and swirls through triple teams. She takes powerful shots without breaking stride. Her blasts have more than once knocked keepers off their feet.

As discernible as Suter is on the pitch, she shies away from the flattery she attracts.

"She's pretty modest," Kopfensteiner said. "She doesn't really like the attention, with goals and everything. She always says, 'It is what it is.'

"That's kind of our thing."

When Suter broke Hopkins' career assists record, and sophomore Kylie Fuller asked her if she had known she was so close to breaking so many records, Suter admitted she hadn't. But by then, Suter's ascension was all but inevitable. It took her another four games to break the career points record (goals and assists), and another eight games to break the career goals record. For the season she has 19 goals, 15 assists and a single-season record 53 points.

To honor Suter for her record-breaking exploits, Weil put on a short ceremony prior to the Franklin & Marshall game, though to avoid discomfiting her Weil made it a surprise. He gave Suter a commemorative soccer ball to mark the occasion. To Suter, the ball represents not the records she broke this season, but the contributions she's made to the Hopkins program over four seasons.

To think otherwise would clash with her character.

"People ask me what it feels like, and I just don't really know what to say, …I don't like reflecting on myself," Suter said of her records.

Hopkins' game against Franklin & Marshall paints a pristine portrait of Suter's deferential nature. Late in the match, she barreled through Hopkins' offensive third, no defenders around her, the soccer ball tapping methodically off the toes of her cleats, the F&M keeper rendered helpless and unmoving, the sparse crowd at Homewood Field delighting in the prospect of another Suter goal.

Suter slid the ball out wide, and Hopkins freshman Hannah Kronick, crashing in from the left, pounded the ball home.

Suter later explained she didn't have a good angle on the goal, that she didn't trust herself to score; Weil later said the play depicts Suter's unselfish nature perfectly.

Not everyone expects such charitable play from Hopkins' star scorer.

In an October match against Dickinson, with droplets of rain plunging down on Homewood Field like tiny, silver pearls, it took Suter 77 minutes to score. When the announcement from the public address system came, a hint of relief coursed through the mumbling voice: "Finally. Goal. No. 26. Erica Suter."

The pressure for Suter to score is very real.

"Sometimes I feel like people are expecting me to score every game, which gets kind of annoying," Suter said. "Because, I can't do that every game."

Such pressure is alleviated when players like Kronick, Pam Vranis and Paulina Goodman score.

If there is one moment that has put Suter's senior season in perspective, though, it came as a precursor to the F&M game, when a Howard County girls team, the TSC Thunder, joined the Blue Jays for a pregame kick around.

One girl, small with red hair, asked Kopfensteiner if she was famous.

"When it comes down to it, we all just love soccer," Kopfensteiner said. "We love the game, and love everything it brings, and the friendships that you have — and that's what means the most."

Much of that was evident following Hopkins' final game of the regular season, when posters hanging on a fence at Homewood Field bore the names of each Hopkins senior, and Hopkins' four juniors stood in front teammates and family members and recited a poem, and Weil confessed that of the 20 teams he's coached at Hopkins, he holds this team dearest.

It was only three months ago that Suter became a senior; it was only 10 years ago that Suter herself was a youthful soccer talent. And every moment since has seemingly coalesced into these final few weeks, and the season that began with tears, one way or another, will likely end no differently.

"We just feel we're the most deserving team in the country to get that [national championship] trophy," Suter said. "We definitely know we can do it, it's just such a long road. Sometimes it's a matter of luck, and the way a ball bounces. But we just want to make sure we go into every game with no regrets. We're just trying to take it one game at a time.

"But we definitely have that goal — our eyes on the prize, I guess."

Editor's note: Jeremy Stafford is a student in the Johns Hopkins Masters of Art in writing program.

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