Fifth-year senior Britt Eckerstrom is the latest of a line of talented goalkeepers for the Penn State women’s soccer program.
“You look at the history of the goalkeepers on the women’s side and you’ve got Erin McLeod on the Canadian (national team and) Alyssa Naeher, the future of the U.S. women’s national team,” nine-year head coach Erica Walsh said.
“You’ve got a long line of international goalkeepers, and Britt’s just one following in those footsteps.”
Eckerstrom, 22, did not start out as a goalkeeper when she began playing soccer as a youth in the Rockville-Germantown area of Maryland, just north of Washington. An untimely injury to her youth team’s goalie placed Eckerstrom in the net.
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“We needed a temporary keeper,” she said. “We had a practice to see who could be the best goalkeeper and I got the call-up. I liked it. I got to get muddy and dive around in practice, and that was pretty cool and I stuck with it.”
Living near the Maryland SoccerPlex, Eckerstrom said she watched the Washington Freedom, a former local professional women’s club, and it inspired her passion to play. In 2009, Eckerstrom played for the Region 1 ODP team, a travel team of elite players from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. There, she met Walsh, who was the coach for the under-16 team.
Over three years, the team traveled to Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Russia. Meeting Walsh made Penn State a possible destination, and a recruiting visit to Happy Valley solidified her collegiate destiny.
“Who wants to play on a sports team where the school doesn’t have any school spirit?” she asked. “Penn State is the exact opposite.”
As a sophomore, Eckerstrom stopped a career-best 94 shots while conceding 30 goals in 23 matches as a starter. She followed that up with 66 saves in her junior season, while cutting her goals-against in half, to 15.
Eckerstrom’s four shutouts and 31 saves this season have guided the No. 8 Nittany Lions to an 8-2-2 record, highlighted by a 2-0 shutout at then-No. 2 Stanford.
Coming into the 2015 season, the Nittany Lions welcomed many new faces as they brought in a recruiting class ranked second in the nation. Walsh has started true freshmen Ellie Jean and Kaleigh Riehl as fullbacks, and Eckerstrom has been instrumental in getting the newcomers acclimated on the pitch.
“Her talk on the field is always reassuring,” Jean said of the goalie. “We can always count on her to make big saves during the game.”
Assistant coach Tim Wassell, who also is the lead recruiter and goalkeeper manager, said Eckerstrom’s confidence and leadership are driving forces for the team.
“It’s been a five-year journey to where Britt’s at,” Wassell said. “She carries that same confidence, and our whole team carries incredible belief in her that everything is shored up back there. Even with a young backline we’ve got an incredible amount of maturity.
“The best teams we’ve faced this season were Duke, Stanford and Santa Clara, and we had shutouts against all of those teams,” Wassell said. “That’s our backline and our goalkeeper. That group of five is really rising to the challenge.”
“Undoubtedly, Britt is the glue of the backline,” Walsh said. “She has them believing in their ability to hold off the other team, to hold them scoreless. She rallies the group when they put the ball in the back of the net; there’s an incredible amount of faith in her.”
With the strong play of her backline, Eckerstrom hasn’t had many shots on goal to save so far this season, which is actually her biggest challenge, according to Wassell.
“The biggest challenge now is going through lulls and games where she won’t have to make a save, but when she’s called upon to make that one we know that she going to be ready,” he said.
Wassell said he recently told her jokingly that she may be on autopilot.
“(She’s) a bit of an old dog,” he said. “I’m not going to teach her a whole lot of new tricks at this stage.”