Medina goalkeeper Dean McNeil knew right away that playing a field position was not for him. Not by a long shot.
“It wasn’t pretty,” McNeil said of his play on the field. “If I didn’t enjoy being goalkeeper, I probably wouldn’t be playing soccer right now. I was awful playing the field because I was bad with my foot skills.”
Good thing for the Bees the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder found himself right at home between the pipes.
McNeil has been the driving force behind a defense that is on the verge of Medina history. Allowing just three goals in 10 games this fall, the Bees have been as dominate as they come and their goalie has a lot to do with that success.
While the 17-year-old has all the right tools to be an accomplished keeper — he anticipates and can stop a variety of shots — something different has been the key for McNeil this year.
“It’s hard to put your finger on,” Bees coach Mark Malikowsi said. “It’s a great presence. Maybe that’s a good word.
“I don’t want to say maturity, because I don’t think he was not a mature goalie. It’s a confidence thing. You can feel it from everybody. You see it in him, but you see if from his teammates, too. That sense of, ‘When we have Dean back there in the goal, we’re good.’”
After recording six shutouts as a junior, two of which came in a postseason run in which Medina won the Brunswick Division I District, McNeil has managed games like a savvy veteran this fall.
That and a group of talented teammates on the backline have the team off to a 5-0-5 start with a key Northeast Ohio Conference Valley Division game tonight at league-leading Solon.
But McNeil credits the finish he had in 2012, combined with a solid club season for Ambassadors FC, for his swagger in goal.
“Last year, if something was not going my way, I maybe lost confidence,” McNeil said. “This season has been a little different and I think the guys see that and maybe I have more of an impact.
“I think I realized that I’m a senior and I’m the starting goalie for Medina. I realize now that I can be a good keeper.”
The goalie has registered eight clean sheets on the season, which includes a streak of six straight heading into tonight’s game at Solon. McNeil hasn’t allowed a goal in more than 480 minutes and has stopped 53 of the 56 shots he’s faced.
McNeil is four shutouts away from tying the school mark for a season and his 14 career goose eggs are just six shy of the school record.
“With every shutout he earns this year, that confidence goes up a little bit more,” Malikowski said. “The confidence and the swagger he has when he walks out there, he’s almost in that mindset that he expects to let no goals in.
“His size no question helps him, but his skill-set is very well-rounded,” Malikowski added. “He’s a shot stopper. He’s good at distributing. He’s good going left, right, high, low. He just has an all-around good set of skills. He doesn’t have that real weak part of the game where teams can take advantage of him.”
McNeil knows, however, that he and the Bees still have a lot of work to do this season. While the streak and personal honors are nice, he wants to hold up that district trophy again this fall and possibly be playing for a few more weeks after that.
“You have to be careful not to be cocky,” he said. “Our defense gas been phenomenal this year and I haven’t had to do too much in the way of making fantastic saves. Ben (Case) and Connor (Dease) do a lot of the organization. I help, but they do a good job.
“I’m confident in my ability and I feel we can go far, but I have to play well.”
As for those foot skills he lacked as an under-10 player for the Medina Rangers, he feels he’s gotten better at that as well.
“I’d like to think I could play in the field now,” he said. “With playing club, my foot skills have improved because we all have to work on it in practice, but it’s really funny to look at myself today.”
Contact Dan Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.