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Pacific edition, Thursday, May 10, 2007

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa

Asking a wrestler to fill the goalkeeping void for a successful high school soccer team seems like an odd idea when taking into consideration that the grappler has no high school soccer experience.

Just don’t tell that to the Kadena boys, because the defending Class AA champions are doing just fine with wrestling champion Brandon McCullough in the net.

The Panthers, who have won the Far East Class AA tournament three times in four years and five times overall, have entrusted senior McCullough, a two-time Far East wrestling tournament gold medalist who has no experience on the pitch at the high-school level, with filling the shoes of graduated three-time All-Class AA goalkeeper Ted Awana.

Unlikely marriage, or divine inspiration?

McCullough, his coach and his teammates resoundingly say the latter.

“I look at Brandon as a natural athlete,” said Tom McKinney, the Panthers’ first-year coach. “You put him anywhere and he accepts the challenge and gets the job done. He can take the responsibility of the team and can lead.”

McKinney had been juggling three goalkeepers, including McCullough, as the Panthers cobbled together a 6-3-4 record, going 1-0-3 against chief rival Kubasaki. McCullough was installed permanently for Kadena’s 2-1 victory over the Dragons on April 27.

During the second half of that match, McCullough stopped three point-blank chances by Kubasaki, including one in the 76th minute on a Michael Derr breakaway.

Not bad for a first-year player stepping into a position that many coaches classify as the most crucial on the field. Even more impressive from someone who hadn’t played soccer since seventh grade.

“Defense wins championships, and the keeper is the general of the defense,” said Matthew C. Perry girls coach Chris Anderson, who has freshman Kate Cutshall in net.

Not only does a keeper stand in the way of opposing scorers, but like a baseball catcher, the keeper is the only player on the pitch who sees the whole field. As such, the keeper calls assignments and aligns defenses for free kicks and corner kicks, among other things.

Yokota girls coach Matt Whipple gambled on Abbi Dacosta last season and the experiment paid off in spades: Dacosta came away with All-Class AA Best Goalkeeper honors — as a freshman.

“Goalkeepers are a unique breed,” Whipple said. “They are more than content to avoid the spotlight and do what they need to. … The best offense is a good defense, and field players play with more confidence if they trust their keeper.”

So far, McKinney classifies the experiment as a success, and teammates have expressed confidence in their newfound keeper. McCullough says he doesn’t feel any added pressure of defending Kadena’s net, Class AA tournament title and soccer legacy.

Wrestling competition “gave me a lot of confidence made me learn to be intense, to leave it all on the field,” McCullough said.

He said so far he’s learned “how to react properly, to know all the people out here, guide them to do things that they don’t see at the moment that I do see.”

McCullough’s fearlessness and tenacity “sets him apart from other goalkeepers we have,” senior sweeper Alex Mierzejewski said. “Knowing how to win, it sets you apart. You know what it takes to win. You know what you have to do.

“ … He’s a quick learner, when to punt or throw the ball, when to come out and when not to come out. He’s developed a soccer instinct.”

While wrestling skills might not seem to translate from mat to pitch, McKinney feels it’s a perfect marriage.

“He has quickness and cat-like reactions, which you pick up from wrestling,” McKinney said. “And he’s not afraid.”

Mierzejewski acknowledges that he, McCullough and his mates have “big shoes to fill” in Kadena’s championship legacy.

But that’s old hat for McCullough, who’s wrestled for Far East gold three times, winning twice.

“Being in that sort of position, I know how to deal with pressure,” he said. “I know how to regulate myself, how to keep calm. Just go out and be ready.”

author picture
Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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