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Finding peace in the penalties: Inside the conflicted mind of Dean McNeil

Junior goalkeeper Dean McNeil has the second-most shutouts in school history, including 12 this season. But after his freshman year, he was ready to quit soccer. (Northern Review photo/Grant Pepper)

Dean McNeil bounces back and forth in his goal, staring down the one with the ball who is dressed in opposing threads and standing just 12 yards away.

Logistically, this shouldn’t be hard for them. These are penalty kicks, and the advantage always goes to the kicker.

After all, McNeil has to cover a goal that is eight feet high by eight yards wide, and he has no clue where they want to kick the ball. He will have to make a split-second reaction, and the chances of him guessing correctly are slim.

Except McNeil stands at a broad six-foot-one, muscular in physique and swift of foot, filling the goal like fog. And he does know where they want to kick the ball because he studied each player on film.

And now that they are thinking about all of this, instead of the task at hand (just put the ball in the goal, they tell themselves), McNeil has already won. This is what he lives for.

“I love them,” McNeil, ONU’s junior goalkeeper, says of penalty kicks. “I like the mental game. I think penalties are one time where there’s no pressure on the goalie, because the attacker is just expected to score. So if you save it, you save it, and if you don’t, well it shouldn’t have happened anyways.”

To understand McNeil’s love for penalty kicks is to understand his affinity for chess.

“In penalties, you get to show off your instincts and your ability to react, and when someone’s taking a penalty, I look at every aspect of their shot; their run-up, where their hips are, where their eyes are, there’s so many things to look at and pay attention to,” McNeil said.

“It’s sort of like a puzzle, I guess, looking at every component of the penalty-taker’s run-up and everything, and it’s putting that all together and figuring out where they’re going to go. I think I’ve always been drawn to things like that, even outside of soccer; I love logic games, chess, puzzles, things like that. So I think that’s the part that I’m drawn to in soccer, is the penalties, for that reason.”

McNeil helped guide Northern into the NCAA tournament last season with a legendary penalty performance against John Carroll during the OAC tournament finals, where ONU won their fifth OAC tournament in six years. Fans stormed Kerscher Field after McNeil’s clinching save, and the 2015 OAC Goalkeeper of the Year threw his arms up in joy.

“I was one hundred percent sure that as soon as we got to penalties, we were going to win that game,” junior defender Dakota Swisher said, recalling last year’s conference title game. “There’s no one I’ve ever played with who’s better at blocking penalties or making penalty saves. And he thrives when crowds are chanting at him, nagging him, if it’s John Carroll fans or whoever; he thrives in that situation, he’d rather be in that situation.”

While McNeil experienced a rare loss in PKs to John Carroll on Saturday in this year’s OAC tournament final, the junior has emerged as one of the nation’s top goalies this season. He allowed just 12 goals in nearly two thousand game minutes (he played the most minutes of any goalie in the country), recording 12 shutouts. He led the OAC in every major statistical category for goalies.

McNeil also led Northern to a 17-1-4 finish, good enough for second place in the OAC and another NCAA tournament berth.

“I believe he’s one of the best keepers in the country,” coach Brent Ridenour said. “We believe in him, and he’s a big part of our success. We wouldn’t have the record we have this year, or 12 shutouts on the season, if it wasn’t for Dean.”

Fortunately for the men’s soccer team, McNeil still likes penalty kicks. He also likes the “camaraderie” of playing on a team. But other than that, McNeil won’t talk about whether or not he still enjoys the game.

In fact, during the spring that followed his freshman season, McNeil felt so burnt out that he quit the team altogether.

“I went into my coach’s office, I turned in my gear during our spring season, and I was like, ‘Coach, I can’t do this anymore,’” McNeil recalls.

Here lies the complexity of Dean McNeil, one of the country’s top goalies, who no longer likes soccer.

***

When McNeil quit, he felt as if he had lost all love for the game.

“The fun had just been taken out of [soccer],” McNeil said. “Not just from playing soccer here for one year, but just as I had gotten older, the game hadn’t been as much fun. It was more of a chore.”

McNeil was coming off of a freshman season where he started 17 games for Northern, logging nearly 1,600 minutes and notching five shutouts.

The stress of not only starting as a freshman, but also starting at goalie, wore McNeil down.

“Mentally, it’s exhausting,” McNeil said. “With the other positions on the field, you have a hundred or two hundred chances to make a play in a game, and if you mess up twice, if you mess up five times, it’s not that significant. But as a goalie, I have maybe 15 or 20 [chances], so if I mess up four or five times, that’s a huge portion of the opportunities I had.”

McNeil’s high personal standards also contributed to the stress.

“I think he enjoyed it at the beginning,” Swisher, McNeil’s roommate for two years, said. “But he holds himself to a very high standard, which I think is part of the original reason why he stopped playing; he thought that the standard he was at wasn’t high enough.”

“I expect a lot of myself, and I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I would say that that’s part of the reason why I decided to quit after my freshman year, was that stress,” McNeil said. “It just didn’t feel like it was worth it.”

Swisher noted McNeil’s altered demeanor as he sat out that spring season, while the goalie struggled with the concept of quitting the game he had played since the age of seven.

“It was noticeable,” Swisher said. “It was frustrating because [the team] would ask me why he wasn’t coming to this or that, but at a certain point it was just about whatever makes him happy. If he was happy, then that’s what I was OK with. Obviously, I was upset because of the lack of talent -- we lost him at goalie for a period of time -- but the person comes first, he’s gotta be happy before anything else.”

The ONU coaching staff, as well as the team’s captains (one of them being current senior Dustin Lorenzo), called and texted McNeil during that offseason to persuade him to rejoin the team. They talked about how successful they could be with him in goal, and McNeil felt compelled to follow through on past promises.

“I started to think, ‘Yeah, there are some opportunities here that I wouldn’t want to miss out on,’” McNeil said. “We went to Italy this summer, which was obviously something I didn’t want to miss. But part of it was just that when I came to Ohio Northern, I told the guys that look, I’ll be here for four years playing soccer. I just felt like I owed it to them to give it our best try, to go make a title run.”

So McNeil rejoined the roster, and in the following season he helped the Polar Bears capture an OAC regular season and tournament title. They would eventually fall in the first round of the national tournament.

But to say that he enjoys soccer is still a bit of stretch, and also something that he won’t talk about.

Is it fun anymore?

“No comment,” McNeil said, as he smirked and averted his eyes.

McNeil, who ranks second all-time in school history in career shutouts (27), says that he plays for the fellowship.

“I’m a big believer that one of the most important things in life is the people you meet, and I love the sense of unity on the soccer team,” McNeil said. “I think that’s the best part about playing soccer right now.”

Oh, and McNeil still loves PKs.

McNeil, who is sometimes pushed to the brink by stressors related to goalkeeping at such a high level, finds serenity in the game’s most stressful stage -- penalty kicks. Quite the paradox.

McNeil is also trying to loosen up a bit during games.

On October 15, in a home tie to John Carroll, McNeil allowed a goal in the 35th minute that tied the game. In his state of internal rage, he reverted to old habits and punched the goalpost with his right hand, rattling the goal as he looked down in disgust.

He swung that night with the same hand that he nearly broke a year before, in a home game against John Carroll, when he punched the post after letting up a goal.

“I punched the post pretty hard. And I don’t know what I did, but I can still see it,” McNeil said, looking down at the knuckle of his right middle finger. “I didn’t break it, but I had a few X-rays, and I decided after that that I wouldn’t do it anymore. That’s why I was kind of surprised that I did it this time, because I swore it off, but sometimes emotions just take you I guess.”

McNeil says that he’s trying to lighten up, which means stopping the hand-post violence.

“I know it seems a little immature, and I guess it’s just how I react, but I’m really trying to curb that,” McNeil said.

For McNeil, who loves the mental game but can no longer love the ‘beautiful game’ like he used to, Friday holds a new opportunity to prove himself on the national stage.

The Polar Bears, who finished ninth nationally in the final regular season D3soccer.com poll, will travel to Carnegie Mellon University (PA) on Friday afternoon to take on sixth-ranked Calvin (MI) in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

McNeil and Northern feel that they are equipped to make a deep tournament run this year, something they have not been able to do since the program’s national championship loss in 2012.

“After we made it to the national finals in 2012, which I wasn’t a part of, and the program lost that game, it’s sort of been the goal since then to make it back,” McNeil said. “Obviously, if we don’t win, we can look back on our season and reflect on whether it was successful or not. But for the time being, that’s our mentality; if we don’t win the national championship, it wasn’t a successful season.”

Friday marks the beginning of what Northern hopes to be a trophy year, with a talented senior class and an All-American caliber goalie at their disposal.

All that Calvin can hope for is that Friday’s game doesn’t go to penalty kicks.