Pili Alvarez’s biggest concern was how to put on the goalie gear.
She had never done it before the Patriot League field hockey championship in the spring, when Alvarez, a striker, was suddenly Boston University’s only option in net.
“They asked me, ‘Can you please play goalie?’” Alvarez said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, no problem.’ But then I was picturing in my head like, How do I put all the equipment on? So I talked to my coach and got help because I had no idea.”
The gear was a bit big on Alvarez, who, at 5-foot-2, was shorter than the goalies on the roster. The Terriers weren’t the only team to find themselves in a similar position this past season.
There’s immediate fanfare every time an emergency backup goalie is thrust into the role. During the coronavirus pandemic, when having sports at all requires flexibility and chaos inevitably ensues, there have been even more new goalies.
Covid-19 protocols across sports, especially at the college level, have limited how many people are allowed to be around players.
That means, for many teams, fewer insurance options. In the N.H.L., with no emergency backups this past season, Ottawa Senators forward Artem Anisimov had to put on goalie pads, just in case, during a game in April. The Washington Capitals added their fourth-string goalie to the roster by Game 3 of the first round of the postseason, without another option after him.
Teams in other sports have had to make adjustments as well. The Denver Broncos famously played a game last year without any of their quarterbacks because they all had been exposed to the coronavirus. North Carolina State’s baseball team, playing without 14 players because of virus protocols in a College World Series game with Vanderbilt last month, used pitcher Sam Highfill at first base one game after his start.
Collegiate teams, especially teams outside the Power 5 conference, have had to be creative. Goalie usually isn’t a position that someone can just jump into and play representatively. A lack of goalies is like a lack of pitchers in baseball or kickers in football; it can jeopardize whether the game is played at all.
That’s what happened when the men’s lacrosse team at Southwestern University, a Division III school in Texas, faced four games without anyone with goalie experience because all of their goalie options were exposed to the coronavirus at various points.
Blake Sitterly volunteered to jump in net. The last time he had taken the net was in middle school. That didn’t matter; he wanted to play.
“Growing up I was always the kid who wanted to play every position,” he said. “We had pretty rotten luck with Covid exposures this season. At one point we had only one goalie on our roster, and he got exposed to his roommate. I knew if we didn’t play, we’d miss four games. And if this was the only way we could play, I knew I wanted to do it.”
At Boston University, Megan Hickey had played goalie in soccer, but never competitively in lacrosse.
Three days before she wore the goalie helmet for the first time, Hickey, an attacker, was told she might be the team’s last resort. Hickey ended up as the Terriers’ regular goaltender down the stretch, playing the final three regular-season games in net.
“The positioning was really hard to figure out, especially wearing a helmet,” Hickey said. “It’s a little disorienting. I think the nerve to stand there as well — people are shooting right at you. I had a little bit of confidence in myself with the mental game, but being a goalie and being scored on is really tough, too.”
At Boston University’s field hockey program, Alvarez was facing a similar experience to her classmate’s. She didn’t have much time to prepare for a conference championship.
A teammate who shared a room with the goalie had tested positive for the virus. Alvarez was asked if she could play in the net before the game.
“After my first save, everyone was hugging me and yelling like, ‘Let’s go,’” she said. “It was 0-0 at the time, so it was nice.”
The Terriers lost to Bucknell on a corner in overtime, but Alvarez stepped up to bring them even to that point. It’s the most extreme example of the way emergency goalies have had an impact on Covid-clouded seasons.
One fill-in, Logan Johns, a men’s soccer player at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Mich., earned a shutout win after his team found itself without each of its top two goalies because of Covid protocols.
His first save was “ugly,” he said, but it gave him confidence that he could finish the game.
“I had to dive to the left and got my hands in front of it, which is what you’re supposed to do,” Johns said. “It went through my hands and hit my chest and bounced straight out of bounds. It was really ugly but it didn’t go in the net so I was like, ‘Oh, I can actually do this.’”
With vaccination rates increasing and regulations likely to subside next college season, we probably won’t ever see a season with so many out-of-position, first-time goaltenders again.
For those who had to take up the gear for the first time, it’s something they will never forget.
“It was a lot of fun,” Alvarez said. “I would do it again.”