Playing ‘in the moment’ and demotion sparked UMBC goalie

UMBC goalie Billy Heavner credits having fun on the field with turning his game around. (Courtesy UMBC Athletics)

Athletes say all of the practice and preparation they do before a game allows them to live in the moment. That moment can be the difference between success and failure, onors and ignominy.

For goalkeepers, getting hot at the right time can carry a team to a title. Take University of Maryland-Baltimore County keeper Billy Heavner. In last year’s NCAA Tournament, Heavner recorded four consecutive shutouts, blanking national powers Wake Forest, No. 4 Maryland, No. 13 Louisville and No. 12 Creighton on the way to college soccer’s Final Four before losing to eventual champion Virginia, 1-0.

“Just like in hockey, when a goalie gets hot he can carry a team,” said Sam DeBone, UMBC assistant coach. “Billy got hot in the NCAA Tournament.”

Head coach Pete Caringi said he hoped the nation would now know what UMBC stands for. Despite his unprecedented postseason performance, Heavner has not been in the conversation for the nation’s top goalie. In addition to raising his game during the most important time of the year, he finished sixth in the nation in goal against and eighth in save percentage last year. College Soccer News though tabbed Kentucky’s Callum Irving for the preseason All-American team first team, Furman’s Sven Lissek second team and Rhode Island’s Nile Leifheim third team.

Perhaps Heavner has to prove that he can be spectacular without defenders Oumar Ballo and Marquez Fernandez. Ballo, a NSCAA All-America third team honoree last year, now plays in the MLS. Fernandez was a NSCAA All East Region second team selection.

Having to prove himself is what Heavner’s done since he arrived at UMBC in 2012.

Because of an injury Heavner had to redshirt his second season at UMBC. When spring ball started in 2014 Heavner was healthy and entered camp No.1 on the depth chart. He was outworked though by fellow keeper Phil Breno. According to Heavner, his problem was all upstairs.

“I had to get out of my own head,” Heavner said. “It was a complete mental block. I wasn’t enjoying it. I needed to start having fun while working hard.”

After a 3-0-1 start to the 2014 season, UMBC went into an early season tailspin. They went 0-4-1 in their next five games.

“(The tailspin) started with a loss to UNLV and then to Cal Fullerton in Las Vegas. Then we had a bad tie (against Loyola),” DeBone said. “Coach (Caringi) decided to mix it up and put Billy in net for the next game against (No. 23) Delaware.”

UMBC goalie Billy Heavner credits having fun on the field with turning his game around. (Courtesy UMBC Athletics)
UMBC goalie Billy Heavner credits having fun on the field with turning his game around. (Courtesy UMBC Athletics)

UMBC midfielder Joseph Pratt scored the game’s lone goal in the 80th minute while Heavner and the back line shutout Delaware’s third-ranked scoring offense. Caringi called it the best game UMBC played on defense up to that point in the season. The victory did much more than halt UMBC’s losing streak.

“The Delaware win turned around the season,” DeBone said.

UMBC went 8-1-1 thereafter which included winning the American East Championship game to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. From the win over Delaware to the conference title win, Heavner’s goals against average was 0.54 a game. He stopped thinking and was playing in the moment. By doing so his skill and ability were showcased.

“He is as quick as cat,” DeBone said. “He has good size and is very courageous. He’s worked hard on controlling the box and keeping crosses out. A good goalie that wants to play on the next level extends the box out to 8, 10 feet. Billy has been doing that.”

The All-American accolades haven’t come yet for Heavner but many others have including academic honors. He was named the 2014 America East Conference soccer scholar-athlete. His 3.96 GPA in financial economics vaulted him to being named to the America East Elite 18 and the NCAA Elite 89 awards: both recognize student-athletes competing at the national championships level who have achieved the highest academic standard. The ECAC named Heavner their 2015 Division 1 Men’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

UMBC’s off to a 4-0-1 start this season. Just how far UMBC goes and whether they can repeat last season’s magic will greatly depend on Heavner.

“It’s time for him to step up and be a leader,” DeBone said.

Above: UMBC goalie Billy Heavner credits having fun on the field with turning his game around. (Courtesy UMBC Athletics)
Keith Chartrand

Keith Chartrand

Keith Chartrand is a freelance writer based in Ocala, Fla.