There was a time when all-league goalkeeper Nicole Smith preferred producing goals to preventing them.
“When I first started playing soccer, I didn’t want to play goalkeeper,” the Los Altos Hills resident said. “I liked to score goals and run around in the field.”
But when Smith’s dad became her coach when she was about 8 years old, everything changed.
“No one wanted to play goalkeeper, so he forced me to do it,” said Smith, who graduated from Gunn High early this month. “By sixth or seventh grade, I was doing it full time. I started to realize it was really fun, and I appreciated the position more.”
The coaching staff at the University of Washington clearly appreciates how Smith plays the position; the Huskies offered her a scholarship that she accepted in April.
“The (recruiting) process was different than most people’s because I had verbally committed to a (NCAA) Division III school my sophomore year,” Smith said, referring to MIT. “For academic reasons, it didn’t work out. … I was upset at first, but now I’m super excited by how it worked out. I get to play DI – and Seattle is such a cool city.”
Smith applied to the data science program at Washington and contacted coach Nicole Van Dyke about joining the Huskies, sending training video and game highlights of her playing for Gunn and the Palo Alto Soccer Club. It turns out Van Dyke was already familiar with Smith.
“I went to a soccer camp at an Ivy League school (University of Pennsylvania) she previously coached at,” Smith said of Van Dyke, who is entering her first year as coach at Washington. “Our paths aligned.”
Smith will enter the Huskies’ fall season as one of only three goalies on the roster – and only one of them is a returning player.
“I’m not sure what to expect,” Smith said of her freshman season. “I’ve met some of the players on Zoom, and I look forward to getting on campus. I plan to get there by late July and the preseason is supposed to start in August, but everything’s tentative right now due to coronavirus.”
In the meantime, Smith is preparing for the season by running in Los Altos Hills – “It’s good training, especially uphill,” she said – and working on her goalkeeping at open fields and parks with younger sister Natalie.
“She’s a field player,” Smith said of the rising junior, “so she can shoot on me.”
The Smith sisters played together at Gunn two years ago, but Natalie devoted this past season to her club team. Nicole played on the Titans’ varsity team all four years.
Juan Mayora, who coached her the first three years, watched Smith steadily improve.
“She had a great season last year,” he told the Town Crier during Smith’s junior year, “and is following that up this season.”
Making an impact
As a senior, Smith was named team captain under new head coach Leo Barcellos.
“It was an honor and super fun,” Smith said of serving as captain. “I focused on leading by example and creating a fun atmosphere. I encouraged them to have fun and work hard at the same time.”
It would prove to be the best season of Smith’s high school career. After narrowly missing the Central Coast Section playoffs her sophomore and junior years, Gunn qualified this year by winning the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League El Camino Division.
“It was the first time we’ve won league in recent program history,” said Smith, whose squad went 12-0 in the division and finished 15-4-2 overall after falling to Sobrato in the CCS semifinals. “I couldn’t find in the records when it last happened, but I’m guessing it was in the ’80s. There’s no (championship) banner in the gym; hopefully we’ll get one now.”
Smith played an integral role in Gunn’s success. Over her 20 starts in goal, she surrendered only 15 goals, made 92 saves and posted six shutouts. Smith allowed an average of just 1.21 goals per game.
Smith said the highlight of her season was a game she barely played in – the Titans’ 2-1 upset of Aptos in the CCS Division I quarterfinals Feb. 22. Smith received a red card early in the first half for tackling a player and was ejected.
“It was probably my first red card,” she said. “(Aptos) had a breakaway, so I risked it and came out and tried to defend her like a field player. The risk was worth it, because we didn’t get scored on, but it was frustrating not to play in such a competitive game. I was still pumped that we were able to pull it out. The spirit and energy I felt on the field and on the bench was like no other high school game I’ve played in.”
Another game that sticks in Smith’s mind: Gunn’s 2-0 upset of Palo Alto to kick off her junior season.
“That was the first time we beat them in a decade,” Smith said. “It was my first season as the starting goalie, and there was the stress of playing your hometown rival in the first game of the season. I felt I played well under the stress.”
Smith has learned to handle the stress of guarding the goal by not dwelling on the shots that get by her.
“A coach once told me that goalkeepers need to have a bad memory,” she said. “The hardest part is getting scored on in games and in training when they get 30 shots on you, and a bunch go in and you feel like you failed. You have to realize it’s helping you get better.”
Smith added that her goalkeeping coach, Rodrigo Baptista of the Palo Alto Soccer Club, has helped instill that in her.
“He’s been great,” she said. “I’m especially thankful to Rodrigo and my parents (Jim and Patricia) for their support through the (recruiting) process. There were moments that I thought it was not going to work out, and they told me to keep pushing – and I’m glad I did.”