Caitlin Nelson.jpeg

Caitlin Nelson is one of the three goalkeepers on JMU field hockey. 

JMU field hockey is known to have depth in every position, however head coach Christy Morgan has focused bringing depth to goalkeeping. What’s considerably the hardest position to play requires training and depth for a strong goaltending stance in a squad. The Dukes have three goalies on the 2020-21 roster, including a freshman keeper. All three goalies come from experienced backgrounds and have been working hard to bring JMU a CAA championship.

Redshirt juniors Caitlin Nelson and redshirt junior Kylie LeBlanc were the rotating starters for all of the 2019 season. Both had strong showings and played against the nation’s top collegiate teams — including current Olympians Erin Matson from UNC and Carrie Hanks from Maryland. Morgan intentionally challenged not only the goalies, but the entire team with these matchups — guiding the goalies’ skillset and confidence.

Joining the roster for the Dukes is freshman Brandelynn Heinbaugh. Originally from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the newest goalie has been learning and adjusting to college life, particularly with the help of LeBlanc and Nelson.

“I think that it’s important that at the end of the day we’re her biggest supporters,” LeBlanc said. “We want whoever’s in the goal to be the best that they can be so our team can have the best chance, whether it’s acknowledging a good save or giving feedback on areas of improvement.”

While looking from the outside, it seems JMU has a three-way race for the starting goaltending spot. However, rather than creating competition, the three goalies will be rotating throughout their JMU careers. The goalies work together in practice to make each is ready to play at a moment’s notice.

“When I get called to play I don’t get nervous because I believe that my teammates are going to do their job, so I just need to do my job,” Nelson said. “We all work together to get that win so it makes it such a cool moment when it works out.”

Nelson had the opportunity to work with former goalies Kyler Zampiello and Sara Kraeutler her freshman year, and was able to form a bond through her training. Nelson made her collegiate debut against Old Dominion in an overtime shootout, and gave credit to her former teammates for keeping her prepared and ready for that challenge.

“Right off the bat they just took me under their wing and showed me what practice was like, what the expectations were,” Nelson said. “Being a goalkeeper can be intimidating, mostly because beforehand I was always fighting for a spot but now I see and feel that we’re all together in this.”

Nelson has tried to bring the same warmth and energy that was given to her to Heinbaugh as she begins her training. Nelson and LeBlanc have been working with her in practices to help grow a close support network for each other.

Although Nelson was the first of the three goalies to join the Dukes, LeBlanc has also tried to bring previously learned skills to the forefront. Transferring from Kent State, LeBlanc has been looking to enjoy the positive attitudes and strong mindset she’s learned at JMU and said she focuses on guiding Heinbaugh in that direction.

“It was a big change coming to JMU and having a new culture, but it was also really refreshing,” LeBlanc said. “We are all in all the time and building connections to see where you fit in the team and how you can help the team so we all can accomplish our goals.”

Heinbaugh has been enjoying the comradery Nelson and LeBlanc have shared in practices. It is unlikely she will redshirt like her teammates, due to the need for her to develop her skill set and help bring up the next JMU goalies.

Once a season is underway for the Dukes, Nelson and LeBlanc will likely continue a similar rotation pattern that was seen last season. Heinbaugh will likely make her first start earlier than previous freshman goalies because she’ll have had more training than in the previous season.

The most common rotation for field hockey goalies is splitting halves. One goalie will play the first half, another for the second and, if needed, a third goalie will be used for overtime and shootouts. This rotation was used a lot last season as a way to build confidence in both Nelson and LeBlanc. However, with Heinbaugh on the roster it is likely the rotation will be similar with the exception of Heinbaugh potentially starting every third game.

The schedule for the 2021 spring season has yet to be determined, however there’s speculation that it will be all CAA opponents. Many teams the Dukes typically play prior to conference games have completed a fall season, including UNC, Louisville and UVA. Morgan has been known to push the Dukes with these competitors, particularly the goalies. By playing nationally ranked teams the goalies are able to make difficult saves and learn through physical play.

“Having Caitlin [Nelson] and Kylie [LeBlanc] helping me learn and being good teammates has made me excited for the new season,” Heinbaugh said. “They’ve been giving me the feedback and support I need to grow, and I do what I can to support them so that we can all do well on field.”

Contact Madison Hricik at hricikmn@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.