August 22, 2013 10:44:02 AM
STARKVILLE -- CJ Winship and Meara Johnson don't know how it happened, but they're going in the right direction.
That's great news for Mississippi State University first-year head coach Aaron Gordon, even if he doesn't know which of his two goalkeepers will emerge as the team's starter. Winship, a senior from Ridgeland, and Johnson, a freshman from Brampton, Ontario, have one more day to make their case that they deserve that role before MSU opens its season at 7 p.m. Friday against the University of South Alabama.
As much as goalkeepers usually look at winning the starting spot as a competition, Winship and Johnson have built a friendship that they feel will help them compete and work together to help the team improve.
"Meara and I are always in constant competition," Winship said. "Obviously there is one starting spot, but we talked at the beginning of the season -- even on her recruiting trip -- not to look at it so much as a competition. Meara and I are family. I understand this is my last year and that this is her first year. I am going to want to teach her everything I know, but I also expect her to teach me what she knows. Instead of going into training every day thinking, 'Who is going to be the best?' Who is going to be the best?' We are thinking, 'How do we make each other better, and how do we continue this legacy that we are hoping to build this year?' "
Winship played in six games (three starts) last year as the backup to Skylar Rosson. She allowed 12 goals and made 28 saves last season. She knows she has an edge in experience on Johnson, who was a member of the Ontario Provincial program since 2008. Johnson was invited to represent Jamaica at the 2012 CONCACAF tournament, and was selected to attend Canada's National Training Centre in 2011 and 2012.
Johnson wasn't worried about making friends in her new "family." She credits Winship for helping to her to become more vocal and to be more of a "general" of the defense. Their friendship has evolved in part from their enjoyment of the band One Direction. They even have adopted hand signs that show they represent the other direction, even if they are going in the same direction together.
"I am CJ's biggest fan," Johnson said. "When she made that real big save (in a 1-1 tie against the University of South Florida last week in an exhibition match) -- she made a lot of big saves -- but there was one in particular, I was jumping so high. It was the same thing when I made a save. She was real excited. We get really excited even when we are training together. We are really positive."
Winship said she heard Johnson cheering for her on the sidelines. She said she has meshed better with Johnson better than any other goalkeeper in her career. She also said she will have Johnson's back and she knows Johnson will have hers regardless of who is on the field.
"When you find two people who have the same goals, when you find two people who are completely and totally team oriented, it is not hard to mesh with the other person," Winship said.
Gordon, the former assistant/associate head coach at Texas Tech University, said it is "healthy" Winship and Johnson have hit if off so well because it shows an older player "investing" in a younger player. He hopes that example sets the tone for the entire team to work together to help change the culture in the program and reverse its fortunes. MSU finished 9-10-1 finish last season in what turned out to be the final season for coach Neil Macdonald, who was re-assigned in the athletic department. MSU went 58-103-4 in Macdonald's nine seasons. The program qualified for the Southeastern Conference tournament one time (2004) and had only two seasons (2004, 2009) in which it finished at .500 or better. In this year's SEC preseason poll voted on by the league's coaches, MSU was picked last in the 14-team league.
"When you invest in players and get to know them as people, it is a lot better to work with them, it is a lot easier to work for them, it is a lot easier to push each other because you have spent the time to get to know them," Gordon said. "When you push them and get on them and have expectations, it comes from someone you like, so I think that helps. I think it will help them grow as people and individuals."
Gordon has spent many years coaching soccer at the youth, college, and professional levels. He said his experience has shown him goalkeepers often don't have as strong of a relationship as the one Winship and Johnson have appeared to build. He said the position is an individual one within a team, so it is natural for the players to be ultra-competitive and to look at their teammate as a rival who is working against them to deny them playing time.
Winship and Johnson have taken a different approach. Even though Winship, who transferred from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is in her last season at MSU, she recognizes Johnson could play a big part of the future of the program, so she wants to help her in any way she can. She also said Johnson has used her skills and youthful exuberance to motivate her.
Johnson plans to work with Winship to motivate the Bulldogs to transform the program.
"A lot of teams maybe have like a bad-blood culture with goalkeepers, but we want to change that," Johnson said. "We want the goalkeepers to be there for each other and to be like a sub-section of our family, like a goalkeeper alliance."
Said Winship, "The other direction."
Gordon encourages that competitiveness because he knows it will bring out the best in both players. He said volunteer goalkeeper coach Robbie Kroger is working with Winship and Johnson to hone their skills to make sure they are ready whenever they are called on. He envisions both players pushing each other during the non-conference portion of the schedule. He isn't sure if he will settle on one goalkeeper by the time MSU begins SEC play at 7 p.m. Sept. 20 against the University of Missouri at the MSU Soccer Stadium.
"They have a little different qualities," Gordon said. "Meara has got more length (at 6-foot) than CJ (who is 5-8). CJ may be a little better and quicker in certain areas, not by much, but their qualities are a little bit different. I expect as we go through the next 10 games for them both to play. I want them to play. When we get into conference, we need to figure out who our No. 1 is, or our No. 1 and No. 1A."
MSU will play its home opener at 1 p.m. Sunday against Arkansas State University.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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