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Veteran Proctor, newcomer Heinsohn challenge each other for Duke women's soccer starting spot

Senior captain and two-year starting goalkeeper EJ Proctor owns the second- and third-best single-season goals-against averages in Duke’s program history. She boasts a 0.79 career save percentage and 21 shutouts entering the 2017 season to place her fourth on the Blue Devils’ all-time charts. 

The 5-foot-8 veteran has allowed only five goals in her 10 NCAA tournament appearances and made two key saves in penalty kicks against top-seeded Stanford in the Elite Eight in 2015, helping Duke make a run to the finals for the second time in head coach Robbie Church’s 15-year tenure. 

On any other team or in any other year, these accolades would be more than enough for the Wilson, N.C., native to secure the starting role between the pipes.

Enter Brooke Heinsohn.

“That battle is going to be ongoing all year,” Church said. “We’re not in a position to say we have a starter for the year. We may have a starter for the game or for the weekend, but I’m not quite sure we’re going to be in a position to say we have a starter for the year, because both are just such high-quality goalkeepers.”

Standing at 6-foot-1, Heinsohn joins the Blue Devils for her first season after delaying her freshman year to compete at the U20 World Cup in Papua New Guinea with the U.S. U20 National Team. After the team finished fourth last December, the Norfolk, Mass., native had the unique opportunity to enroll at Duke and begin practicing with the Blue Devils in January. 

With high-level international experience under her belt and significant time to get acclimated with the team, the redshirt freshman could be in the rare position to dethrone Proctor as Duke’s starting netminder.

Heinsohn played for the U.S. in the 2016 U20 Women’s World Cup before coming to Duke.  Carolyn Chang

Through the first five games of the season, Proctor and Heinsohn have split time in net. They each played one half in the Blue Devils’ exhibition contest at Clemson, in which Heinsohn allowed the Tigers’ lone goal in the 34th minute. Proctor earned the starting nod and played all 93:17 against North Carolina August 18, giving up two goals and making two saves in Duke’s 2-1 overtime loss to its Tobacco Road rival. 

Two days later, Heinsohn played the entirety of the Blue Devils’ contest against Xavier, allowing one goal and notching one save in Duke’s 3-1 win. The two goalkeepers once again split halves in the Blue Devils’ first shutout of the season against Bucknell Friday, and Proctor allowed one goal while playing all 90 minutes of Duke’s 3-1 road victory against Old Dominion Sunday afternoon.

“Right now, we’re just evaluating practices and games,” Church said. “I’m not saying we’re also going to alternate every weekend, either. We’re going to make that decision as we get closer to game time. We’re so fortunate to have both of them in our program and they’ve both worked really hard, and they both have their strengths and they both have their weaknesses.”

One area where the Blue Devil veteran boasts the upper hand is in organizing and communicating with her teammates from the back of the field. With three years of experience and chemistry built with the back line, Proctor feels comfortable commanding the team and uses that comfort—combined with her field vision—to lead the team from behind. 

Although her rookie competitor has come a long way with communicating effectively since arriving on campus in January, Heinsohn readily admits that she still has room for improvement in that department. After a fall playing in a different formation with the U-20 National Team, a learning curve was expected.

“I still had to get used to some of the language that the team uses,” Heinsohn said. “I tried to introduce some of the terms that I like to use and there have been a couple of bumps in the road, but I feel like me communicating with the backs and somewhat with the midfielders has gone pretty smoothly so far.”

Where Proctor may cover more of the field with her voice, Heinsohn can cover more of the net with her body. The top goalkeeper in the 2017 recruiting class holds a five-inch height advantage on Proctor and a significantly longer wingspan to go along with it. 

Heinsohn’s extra length may be a difference maker in some crucial situations. It may have been enough to save the Tar Heels’ first goal in that overtime victory August 18—a free-kick blast over Proctor’s outstretched hands which ricocheted off the crossbar and into the back of the net.

“She’s a lot taller than I am, so there are things that she can do that I can’t because of that,” Proctor said. “I have to position myself a bit differently, but besides that we’re pretty neck-in-neck with a lot of things, so it’s just challenging and keeps each other sharp. It just kind of makes us better in areas we’re not so good at.”

For all of the pressure that comes along with competing for the starting role, Proctor and Heinsohn have still managed to cultivate a mentor-mentee relationship in the past seven months. They both look to each other for confirmation and advice, even finding each other to discuss the starter’s play at halftime and delivering constructive criticism during practices.

Their shared commitment to making each other stronger stems from a belief that their roles extend beyond the individual level. Regardless of which goalkeeper finally gets the starting nod between the pipes, they know that both will contribute to the team’s ultimate success.

“It’s a privilege to come out of the group and represent us with the starting 11,” goalkeeper coach Lane Davis said. “We’re fortunate to have difficult choices, even though on a personal level they may be wishing the choices were easier. At the same time, it’s all about our group and it’s who we promote to be the goalkeeper for that team.The honorable thing to do is to help prepare that person who is playing to step into that role because that is what is best for the team.”

Jack Dolgin contributed reporting.