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Gregg Bell Unleashed: Season-Saver
Release: 11/17/2010
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Nov. 17, 2010

By Gregg Bell UW Director of Writing

SEATTLE - Ha! Don't tell Jorde LaFontaine-Kussmann she plays a so-called "non-revenue" sport.

She was cash money for the Huskies last weekend in Portland, in one of the wildest matches in the history of the NCAA women's soccer tournament.

While most of us fixated on how healed Jake Locker's broken rib was, or on how impressively the Huskies' men's basketball team was starting its big season, LaFontaine-Kussmann produced what might end up being the most impressive individual performance and display of mental toughness in UW athletics all year. Or in many years.

The junior from Lakewood, Wash., is in her first UW season after transferring from California and two-plus years removed from beating cancer. She and her two magical, gloved hands sent Washington into the third round of the NCAAs with 13 saves at second-ranked Portland. It was one short of the school record for a match.

The Huskies had beaten their bitter rival only twice in 27 previous meetings, and Sunday the Pilots relentlessly pelted 27 shots at LaFontaine-Kussmann. Yet only one got past the 21-year-old whose given name in Jorden but whom everyone calls "JOR-dee."

In regulation she repeatedly denied Pilots star Sophie Schmidt with diving stops. In overtime she leaped and stretched her 5-foot-6 body to poke over the crossbar what looked like the strike that would doom UW's season. The game stayed tied at 1 through one overtime, then two. After 110 deadlocked minutes, LaFontaine-Kussmann made another diving stop early in an astounding, pressure-packed 11 rounds of penalty kicks.

Then, still wearing her bluish-gray goal keeper's jersey and white gloves, LaFontaine-Kussmann drilled home a penalty shot of her own in the ninth round; a goal keeper taking a penalty kick and scoring is something else you don't see every day. It was LaFontaine-Kussmann's first college PK and first in four years, since she was playing club soccer as a teenager for Eastside FC in suburban Seattle and for the nation's Olympic Development Program.

In the 11th round, back in net, she read the mind of Portland's Jessica Tsao, dived to her right and repelled the Pilots' final shot. That sent the Huskies - 11-8-1 overall and sixth in the Pac-10 this regular season -- into delirium, and into Saturday night's NCAA tournament quarterfinal match at UC Irvine (19-2-2).

It was the soccer equivalent of Locker throwing the winning touchdown pass then making the game-saving tackle at the goal line to clinch a postseason win.

"Oh, my gosh," LaFontaine-Kussmann said after practice on Tuesday, still sounding thrilled and somewhat in disbelief two days after her heroism.

"To win like that with all eyes watching and to knock out the No. 2 team in the country -- when we know how good we were but we just hadn't proved it yet -- it was an incredible feeling."

As her amazing performance suggests, she loves penalty kicks. She feels the pressure is all on the shooter, who is kicking from a dot marked on the field 12 yards away from the goal line directly in the center -- and not on the keeper who must keep the ball out of a goal that is eight yards wide and eight feet tall.

"I know most people don't like PKs because it's not a test of your skill as a soccer player," she said. "But for a goal keeper, it's exciting to be the hero. It's a make-or-break situation. If you don't like PKs, it can be hell. If you love it, then it's just a fun game."

"I like pressure. It's fun."

And besides, what's single-handedly deciding a soccer playoff game when you've already beaten cancer?

Jorde completed aggressive chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma after being diagnosed late in 2007, during her freshman season as a top-20 national recruit at Cal. She lost 20 pounds of muscle and all of the 2008 season recovering from that, and then all of 2009 as mandated by the NCAA after transferring home to Washington. She didn't feel fully healthy for two years.

She calls the penalty-kicks way of breaking ties "a mind game" between the keeper and shooter. And with what she has been through just to be at Portland's Merlo Field on Sunday, the Huskies had the toughest mind around.

That's why coach Lesle Gallimore liked her team's chances once the Huskies completed a gritty survival of Portland's onslaught through 110 minutes.

She told the Huskies LaFontaine-Kussmann was about to win the game just before the penalty kicks began.

"I said, `Jorde will save one. So you get yourselves ready to do what you need to do and give her a chance (to win it)," the coach recalled.

Gallimore has been Washington's coach for 17 years, the longest tenure in the Pac-10. She says she has never seen a match last through 11 rounds of penalty kicks before determining a winner.

It went on so long that by the end, even the referee got confused over who was kicking next.

The Huskies got a huge break won they won the coin toss to begin the PKs. That meant they kicked first, further ratcheting up the pressure on Portland to score as Washington kept making its shots.

"For us to be confident and being the first kickers, then put it back on them to beat Jorde on a penalty kick was mentally a good place for our whole team to be," Gallimore said.

On Portland's second PK, by West Coast Conference player of the year Keelin Winters, LaFontaine-Kussmann did two crow hops and dived left to stop the shot with both hands near her belly. She got up and triumphantly threw a haymaker into the air with her left fist.

But the Huskies missed a subsequent shot, too, leaving the kicks tied at 4 after five rounds. Then each team kept making shots until the final, 11th round.

The mind game wore on. And the Huskies' keeper was equipped.

LaFontaine-Kussmann tried to ice Portland's shooters, or at least make them more nervous than she saw they already were. Each round, she took time to go into the net and bang her spikes on the bottom bar of the goal.

It looked like she was kicking mud from her cleats on the soggy field. But she was doing more than that.

"Yeah, that's part of the mental mind game," she said. "As a kicker going up there getting ready to shoot, the longer I take the longer they are thinking about what they are doing, waiting on me, I'm getting ready. It's nice to be the goal keeper in that sense, because you really get to stop and control the situation.

"That's a little tip from my coach."

Yet she admitted most of it is guess work.

"Everyone says, `Watch their eyes. Watch their knee,'" she said. "But at this level, it's hit so hard you don't have time to wait and try to read what's going on. You just have to guess and hope you are right."

There was no guessing when she lined up for her own penalty kick for Washington's turn in the ninth round. And there was no doubt in the minds of Huskies coaches that their keeper was going to get the call if PKs went that long.

On the bus to the field before the match, assistant coach Jim Thomas had asked LaFontaine-Kussmann if she'd like to take a penalty kick if need be. She enthusiastically said yes. She'd been the penalty kicker for her club team years ago, when she split her games as a midfielder and a keeper. And she only played midfield striking shots, not stopping them, in high school at the Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma.

LaFontaine-Kussmann pounced immediately after the referee's whistle and drilled the ball into the back right of the net. No hesitation. No soft, safe shot. And no chance for the keeper - the other one, the one in goal this time, Portland's Hailee DeYoung.

Kate Deines scored for the second time in the penalty-kick phase when she booted it home to start round 11. A save by LaFontaine-Kussmann would send the Huskies into the third round of the NCAAs.

Tsao had scored in the first round of PKs on a shot LaFontaine-Kussmann actually stopped initially. But the keeper's dive left was actually too aggressive, and the ball trickled off her hands past her to her right.

"Yeah, I over-dove it. When does that ever happen?" she said with a laugh.

So she changed it up for the final mind game.

"That last one (by Tsao), I had dived to the left and almost saved it the first time. And when she came up to the PK spot she looked kind of nervous," LaFontaine-Kussmann said. "So I was thinking, OK, if I were her, I would probably be too scared to hit it to the same side, so I am going to hit it to the other side. So I just took a chance hoping she would hit it there.

"And she did. That was nice to finally end, because those 11, it was getting too long."

Nice? LaFontaine-Kussmann pumped both fists and ran to the top of the penalty area. That's where the entire Huskies roster, coaches and staff met her head on, like trains colliding. Sarah Martinez was the first Husky to engulf her. The force of the rest knocked LaFontaine-Kussmann back.

"Then the pile just got heavier and heavier," she said, laughing. "I was fine for a little bit, then I just got to the point where, `OK, this is too heavy. More people kept coming. Then we started yelling for people to get off. ... we were getting smushed."

So what does LaFontaine-Kussmann and these thrilling Huskies do for an encore Saturday night at UC Irvine? Gallimore has already talked to the players about combating a letdown from the huge win, explaining to them that "each game is its own entity."

Something tells me LaFontaine-Kussmann will be ready.

"When we come out to practice it's always about looking one game at a time and just working on all of the things that we do well," the newest star of Huskies athletics said.

"We're going to go down there on Friday, play on Saturday, and just get ourselves hyped up."

About Gregg Bell

Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.

Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on each Wednesday.

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