Saving Grace

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Maite Zabala insists that it won't be her record.

Sure, it will have the goalkeeper's name on it. Zabala has been notching up shutouts for Cal for four years, and she's just one away from crashing the Cal women's soccer career record.

Still, she insists that it belongs to her whole back line.

"It is totally the defense's record," Zabala says. "There are a lot of bad goalkeepers with tons of shutouts, and the record really relies on the defense."

The current record for shutouts is 22, set by Karen Cook from 1993-1996. Zabala currently sits at 21.5 going into the Bay Area Final Four this weekend at San Jose State.

When the senior is not notching shutouts she is practicing six days a week, diving to the ground, leaping to the upper post, and scrapping to keep the ball out of the 8-by-24-foot net. At practice each day she faces roughly 100 shots.

The work has paid off for both Zabala and the Bears this season. She has notched 4.5 shutouts thus far - a big reason why Cal is 7-0.

Her parents, coach and teammates say her reaction to her accomplishment is just typical of Zabala.

"She tries to give a lot of credit to others," senior defender Amy White says. "But she deserves and earns a lot of it."

Zabala started playing soccer in a big backyard in Boise, Idaho.

Her family is from Europe, and her uncle played semi-pro soccer in Spain. Her next-door neighbors were her cousins, and growing up they would play soccer together.

"Everyone in my family plays soccer," Zabala says. "I even talk about it with my grandmother."

Early on someone noticed a gift. She played for the Olympic Development

Program Regional Team from 1993 to 1995.

In '93 she started playing goalkeeper, and to this day she is not really sure why.

Though she might not clearly remember how it started, she knows why she decided to stay between the posts - she loved the intensity.

"It is such a rush," Zabala says. "For me it is a mental challenge. It physically takes a toll differently than from other position because it wears the body down with the diving."

Quick instincts are also needed to deal with a player who is rushing toward the goal, ready to turn a ball into a bullet.

"On an instinctual level I think it slows down," Zabala says. "You can react at a level that doesn't seem as fast as it really is."

Zabala's parents see their daughters success as a part of her temperament.

"Maite has very long fingers," says Zabala's mother, Begone. "She has always liked to be pretty playful and she likes to rough and tumble with her cousins. She just has that certain goalkeeper character."

Playing for different club teams during high school fused her first invaluable link to Cal.

Kevin Boyd, the Cal women's soccer coach, also coached Zabala when she played for Les Bois United club team from 1993-1996. He noticed right away great potential for the collegiate level.

"She has always been a terrific goalkeeper," Boyd said.

During this time soccer was not her only sport. Zabala attend Bishop Kelly High School in her hometown and played both soccer and varsity basketball.

"I played basketball in the winter time, because it was too cold outside to play soccer," Zabala says.

In 1996 Boyd came to the Bears as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. He recommended to Cal's coach at the time, Andy Bonchonsky, that he snatch up Zabala.

During her sophomore year at Cal Zabala became the Bears' main goalkeeper, and at such an early age took on the role as captain for the squad.

"There are just some people gifted with that type of personality," Boyd says. "Her personality is very unassuming and she is clearly one of the top players on the team. She works extremely hard."

The team-oriented personality that makes her both modest and a team leader is something that Zabala's mother has seen since an early age.

"After a win she doesn't say 'I won the game,'" Begone Zabala says. "She says, 'We won the game.' Even when she was younger."

Her dominance in the goal has earned her the nickname "Mighty Might" from some of her teammates.

In 1998 and 1999 Zabala was named the top goalkeeper in the Pac-10. Boyd still rates her the No. 1 keeper in the conference, and at least the sixth-best in the nation.

"She is a terrific shot-blocker," Boyd says. "She is very good with her hands and she is much more athletic than she is sometimes given credit for. She keeps balls from out of the corner and blocks shots from almost anywhere."

As a defender who has played with Zabala for four years, White knows she doesn't have to worry about every ball that gets through.

"We do our job as best we can, but there are going to be shots that get through," White says. "When that happens we know we can count on her to stop them."

What does Zabala think of her own style of goalkeeping?

"I'm not a flashy keeper," Zabala said. "I try to stay organized and do the smart thing so I don't have to make spectacular saves."

Others would disagree.

"People should really come out and watch her," Boyd says. "The fans who do come out often go away saying, 'Did you see that save the goalkeeper made?' She has great hands, and is able to get balls you wouldn't think she'd be able to get to."

Soccer is so entangled in Zabala's life that she doesn't know what she would be doing without it.

"I know I wouldn't be here today," said Zabala. "I'd probably be back in Idaho."

After graduating with a degree in political science, Zabala plans to join the new U.S. women's professional soccer league, which is starting up this spring. It is a dream her coach and teammates say is likely to become a reality.

As far as the breaking the record, the team also believes that it will come soon. The next chance is Friday against San Jose State.

For the Bears, the main goal is to continue racking up wins. The side project is to help Zabala make her mark on Cal history.

"It would be a pretty great close-out for my soccer career at Cal," Zabala says. "Something like that is a great honor, but what it comes down to is your defense. I think it will be great for people to look back and see my name, but they will also have to think of who was on the field in front of me."


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