When the Cal women’s soccer team steps onto the field in their playoff game against Santa Clara Saturday, they know one thing for sure: they can count on Maite Zabala.
“She’s a big-game player,” says Cal goalkeeper coach Henry Foulk. “She’s a stronger player when the chips are down.”
Zabala is the team’s senior goalkeeper, a four-year starter and team leader who is undoubtedly one of the best in the country at her position. After consecutive all Pac-10 selections the past two seasons, she has stepped her game up even more this year, recording a career-best 0.57 goals-against average and 9.5 shutouts while starting every game the Bears have played.
“She’s got a crazy combination of balance, power, strength and poise,” says Cal sweeper Tami Pivnik. “She just gives us so much confidence when she’s back there.”
Pivnik, also a senior, works closely with Zabala during games, organizing the Cal defense and distributing the ball into the offense. The Bears use only three defenders, an unusually aggressive formation that allows the team to push players forward in bunches.
“In order to be a good attacking team, you have to put numbers into the attack,” Pivnik says. “If you don’t get six or seven people up there, you won’t score. So we’ve committed ourselves to that all year, and having Maite allows us to do that and not worry about giving up shots.”
Cal head coach Kevin Boyd agreed that much of Cal’s success can be attributed to Zabala’s presence.
“She gives us confidence, plain and simple,” Boyd says. “We know she’s going to make the everyday saves, and we know she’s going to make some unbelievable saves. We know that we can let people shoot from 25 yards out and it doesn’t scare us.”
But Zabala contributes just as much off the field as she does on it. She is known as one of the hardest workers in practice and in the weight room, and her accomplishments, work ethic and elder status on the team make her a natural leader for the younger players.
Raised in Boise, Idaho, Zabala came to the Bears in 1997 as a much-recruited player, having been pursued by numerous west coast schools, including Washington, Arizona and Santa Clara.
“It really came down to Arizona and Cal,” Zabala says. “They’ve had some trouble with their program since then, and I’ve had a great time here, so I obviously made the right choice.”
Zabala made an immediate impact on the program, starting eight games and recording two shutouts as a freshman. But for a player who is used to succeeding at everything she does, it was a bit of a letdown.
“I struggled a little at the beginning, but the competition was good for me,” she says.
Zabala says the competition for the starting spot in goal is fierce every year.
“It’s been really cool because we’ve had really good keepers while I’ve been here, and that helps a lot because it makes practice that much harder. It makes me play better.”
Zabala has been the unquestioned starter for the last three seasons, starting all but two games and leading the Bears to the postseason each year. The Bears lost first-round games in both 1998 and ’99, but they earned a first-round bye this season with their 17-2-1 record, including wins over eight teams that made the tournament. The Bears played their opponent Saturday, the Santa Clara Broncos, to a 1-1 tie in the Bay Area Final Four Tournament in September.
“We’ve made such huge strides this year,” she says. “That’s why we came here, to make the program better.”
Zabala has enjoyed her four years at Cal, and plans to graduate next fall with a degree in political science. She says she almost didn’t come to Cal because she had a skewed sense of California life.
“I had been down to southern California for tournaments, so I had a taste of that, which I was a little sketchy about,” she says. “But the Bay Area is awesome. It’s very different from Idaho.”
Boyd has not only coached Zabala during her college career, he also coached her during her high school years on a club team, Les Bois United. So he has seen her play since 1992 and is probably most familiar with her maturation as a player.
“The reason for her greatness is her stability and her character,” Boyd says. “She’s the toughest on herself, and she’s always the first to build up a teammate. Those things make her a great player and a quality person in general.”
Cal’s goalkeeper coach, Henry Foulk, has only worked with Zabala for one season, but he sees many of the same qualities in her.
“She’s so well-respected by all her players, and they all look up to her,” Foulk says. “She’s a leader on and off the field for this team.”
In the past, Zabala probably wouldn’t have the option of pursing a career in soccer after she graduates. But that has changed with the formation of the Women’s United Soccer Association, the first attempt at a professional women’s league in the U.S.
Born from the considerable enthusiasm over the U.S. National Team’s dramatic victory at the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the WUSA will begin play next April. Zabala says she’s waiting until next year to look into playing professionally.
“I don’t even want to worry about it until I’m done with school, but I want to play for as long as I can,” Zabala said. “That would be pretty cool.”
Foulk says she has everything it takes to move up to the next level of competition.
“She has the ability to become better and improve her game,” he says. “I haven’t seen her reach her limits yet.”
Boyd has held out hope in the past that Zabala might get a national team tryout, and says she has the ability to make the team. But the player herself seems somewhat awed by the possibility.
“I’d have to have time to get ready for it,” she says. “It’d be great if it happens, but I’ll be okay if it doesn’t. It’d really be icing on the cake.”