St. Edward senior goalie Paige Gannon is one tough son-of-a-gun.
How does she get that moniker you ask? One needs to look no further than St. Edward's Suburban Christian Conference game earlier this season against Wheaton Academy.
Green Wave senior defender Katie Ayello recalls Gannon taking a ball in the face that drew some blood.
"She was bleeding pretty bad," Ayello says. "But she didn't want to go out. It was an important game and she wanted to be in there. She will never go out. I remember in the state tournament last year she got table-topped and was a little out of it for a second, but she came right back in there."
To make matters worse, it was raining and Wheaton Academy found the back of the back of the net an un-Gannon-like four times.
"That was her one blip of the year," veteran St. Edward coach Tim Brieger says. "We ended up winning 5-4 and when they went up 3-0, we were like, 'OK, it's time to pull Paige out.' Some players in that situation might be like, 'Coach, get me out.' She wanted to stay in. She waved us off twice. She doesn't care about stats. She wanted to be in there because she wanted to win the game. It was all about that game at that moment. That sums her up right there."
Being a confident, unflappable and talented goalie and team leader also sum up Gannon, the honorary captain of the 2012 Daily Herald All-Area girls soccer team. Gannon is St. Edward's first girls soccer captain since Becky Duffy earned the honor back in 2000.
Gannon, a four-year varsity starter and one of the team's tri-captains this season, set program single-season records for games started in goal (29), goals-against average (0.89), shutouts (17) and consecutive shutouts (9). Gannon, who was part of the St. Edward team that advanced to the Class 1A state finals in 2011, helped the Green Wave to a 19-8-2 record, which included regional and sectional championships for a second year in a row. The 19 wins tied the school single-season record.
"She shutout everybody," Brieger laughs. "At one point we had 9 shutouts in a row with 8 wins and a 0-0 tie with Hampshire. She stepped up big for us. She's an outstanding player. She has a way about her. She's a great kid on and off the field. She's a strong presence."
In her four years at St. Edward (she played starting outside defender as a freshman), Gannon set a program record for most varsity games played with 102 and most games played in goal (76). Her 1.60 career GAA and 29 career shutouts both rank second all-time in the program ledger.
"Paige kept us in more games," Brieger says. "She had some huge games for us. She has the size and strength. She kicks with both legs. She's imposing back there. She's strong in the box and strong in the air and when she comes out, she's amazing on breakaways."
Brieger has breathed a sigh of relief the last three years when the opposing team happened to get one of those breakaway attempts.
"When the other team has a breakaway, I'm not concerned," he says. "Nine times out of 10 she is going to stop you. I've seen her grab the ball with one hand on a breakaway. There was one head coach who came up to me and said, 'Your goalie is a game-changer.' To have her dominating physical presence in goal was huge for us."
With the exception of her freshman season when veteran Taylor Hunsberger was in goal, Gannon has always plied her trade between the pipes.
"It was kind of a volunteer thing when I first started," Gannon says. "No one else wanted to do it. I've always kind of accepted what others are not willing to do. I've had a great time doing it. Some people aren't used to having the ball shot at them at a high velocity. I have fun in goal. I admit it's fun to run around and shoot the ball, but playing goalie is my priority and preference, I guess."
Gannon thrives on the one-upsmanship aspect of the position. When the opposing team is encroaching on the St. Edward goal, it's show time for Gannon.
"I love the challenge," she says. "I love seeing the other player dribbling at me. It's them and the back of the net and I'm the only thing standing between them and scoring a goal. I love the challenge of making a save. Their motivation is scoring a goal and my motivation is to overpower them. It builds me up when I see someone coming at me. Some keepers might get nervous. I get excited. It's my excitement, I guess."
Gannon notes defending against the crossbar is the most challenging aspect of the position.
"It's definitely the crossbar shots that are placed just above your fingertips," she says. "That's the hardest shot for any goalkeeper. When you come out and they chip over you, that's an amazing shot to hit and it's one of the toughest shots to save. You definitely have to play angles and position yourself to jump. That's how we lost in the supersectional (St. Edward lost to Lisle). The girl hit it high. It's hit or miss for the keeper every time. It was an amazing shot and amazing placement on her part."
For all the statistical success she enjoyed, Gannon stresses none of it would have been possible without the girls that played in front of her.
"To be honest, I had the best teammates I could possibly have," she says. "They always did their job. I got to sit back and relax. I was fortunate to be able to do that because we had an amazing team of forwards, midfielders and defenders. Everyone of them contributed to what we did."
Gannon is particularly fond of her defense, which included Ayello, a fellow senior, junior Rena Ranallo, sophomore Emily Witt and freshman Kathleen Duffy.
"The people on defense are the most important ones on the field," Gannon says. "Without them there would have been so many more shots on goal. Without a defense like we had, we wouldn't win. They put all the time and effort in."
That quartet of defenders featured players with varying degrees of defensive experience. Having Gannon behind them eased the transition of playing together and excelling in St. Edward's system.
"She plays with heart and is pretty much the motivation of the defense," Ranallo says. "She tells us what to do and where to go. She kind of controls the defense. She sees the whole field. She talks to us and she pushes us."
Witt had equally strong words when talking about the Green Wave netminder.
"Paige is a really good leader. She doesn't blame anybody else," she says. "She carries the team on her shoulders. She makes sure everybody knows it is a team effort. She's always encouraging people and she knows the game really well."
Witt was familiar with Gannon's reputation prior to St. Edward. They both played for the same club soccer organization.
"She was older than me, but I heard Paige was amazing," Witt says. "When I got to high school it was great knowing was the goalie on our team."
Gannon has her sights on helping more people in the future. Competitive soccer for her is likely a thing of the past. She plans on studying nursing and minoring in psychology at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Gannon was an honors student at St. Edward.
"I do intend to try out for the club team there," says Gannon, who was heavily recruited to play soccer at Northern Illinois University. "It's definitely been one of the hardest decisions I have had to make. Soccer has been a huge part of my life. It helped me grow as a person. I'll continue to play it in college and beyond, but it was more of a timing issue. Studying nursing is demanding. It's a demanding field of study. I decided to go a different route. I felt it was important for academics to come first. Marquette has one of the top nursing programs in the nation. I feel very comfortable going there. My goal in life is to travel to Africa and help people in third-world countries and help the less fortunate."
Gannon is thrilled to have been part of the St. Edward soccer program the last four years. With Gannon in goal the last two years, the Green Wave had a combined 33-17-5 mark.
"The success we have had is more than anything I could ever ask for," she says. "We put in so much time and effort on and off the field. We're a family. That was the key to our success. Without that, we probably would not have gone as far as we did. It was the love we had for each other. We're like sisters."
And her Green Wave sisters knew the buck stopped with Gannon.
"Paige always has our back," Witt says.
Duffy adds: "She did everything she do to stop the ball. We felt confident with her behind us. If we messed up, Paige was there. We couldn't have asked for a better leader and for a better keeper."