Impressed? You should be, for the figure above is the average number of goals per game scored by opponents of the Bowling Green boys’ soccer team over the past two seasons.
If that’s not eye-popping enough, try this: heading into the 4th Region Tournament, the Purples haven’t allowed the ball to find the back of the net since September 24. That’s a streak of five straight shutouts, if you’re keeping tabs, and it’s also a pretty strong indication that the Purples defense is playing at a level that could put BGHS in the hunt for a second consecutive state championship.
And defense, soccer aficionados will tell you, usually begins and often ends with the guy playing one of the loneliest positions in sports: goalkeeper. In the case of the Purples, that lonely guy is senior Ryan Hughes. A smallish 5-foot-8, Hughes throws around that undersized body to make saves and uses a man-sized voice to direct and exhort his teammates. How does he view the position he has played so well the past two seasons?
“It takes a little insanity to be a goalkeeper,” says Hughes, only half-kidding. “You have to be a little crazy. It’s not for everybody, that’s for sure. You need confidence in yourself, and you need to be a good leader.”
BGHS coach Craig Widener has a slightly different take on the qualities of a good goalkeeper, but he’s quick to say that Hughes lives up to his standards.
“You have to be willing to work,” Widener says, “and you need to have the ability to pay attention for long periods of time without having to do a whole lot. And you need to be able to quickly forget things. If you focus on something that went wrong, it will do nothing but bring you down. But the biggest thing for Ryan is his willingness to work. I’m not sure I’ve seen a player work as hard as he has to elevate his game from the time he was in seventh and eighth grades until now. He has never shied away from a challenge. We’re extremely blessed to have him.”
Maybe all that hard work is how Hughes compensates for a lack of stature.
“People have told me I couldn’t be a good keeper because of my size,” he says. “Short goalkeepers have to be really sound technically. Positioning has to be perfect. I can’t control how tall I am; I just have to work harder on where I am and on my jumping ability. I don’t view it as a hindrance. It can be intimidating to see a 6-foot-5 goalkeeper, but I can get down on the ground faster than they can, so there are pros and cons.”
The pros have definitely outweighed the cons during Hughes’ tenure as the Purples keeper. With hard work, athleticism and smarts (he carries a 3.75 GPA), Hughes has become a team leader.
“Goalkeeper is often a lonely position,” Hughes says. “When you do well, everybody loves you. But you’re only as good as your last save. There’s a lot of pressure but also a lot of reward. Your teammates look at you as the last line of defense. They’re relying on you.”
Mostly, says coach Widener, those teammates are relying on the goalkeeper to communicate to them so they can be in the right positions.
“Defending is a team thing in this sport,” Widener explains. “Our goal is to make the goalkeeper as bored as humanly possible back there. If he doesn’t have to touch the ball, then we’re playing really well. But when the time comes for him to step up, Ryan has never shied away from the challenge.”
Echoing his coach, Hughes says: “I have to direct the back four on defense. Those are my brothers. Coach relies on me to keep them in line. I’ve learned a lot of responsibility the last four years. Communication is probably the most important part of goalkeeping. I can get pretty loud. I demand a lot out of my teammates, and they demand a lot out of me.”
Those demands will be needed as Bowling Green enters the regional tournament. While not overlooking any 4th Region opponents, Hughes says the goal for the Purples all season has been to get back to the state championship game.
“Once you do it (win a state championship) once and you know how that feels, anything less than a championship will be a huge disappointment,” he says. “State is the ultimate goal, but there are a lot of obstacles before that.”