Washington goalie savors tourney upset
There is that which we control and that to which we can only react once set in a motion around us. A good goalkeeper's greatest gift is making the the latter look remarkably like the former.
Having turned away cancer's best shot, Jorden LaFontaine-Kussmann is one gifted goalkeeper.
After 110 minutes of soccer, the full 90 minutes of regulation plus a pair of 10-minute overtime periods, Sunday's second-round NCAA tournament game between No. 1 seed Portland and unseeded Washington remained tied at 1. The contest remained all square after the standard five shots per team from the penalty spot in the subsequent shootout -- and all square still after five more rounds of alternating shots. So as she took her place in goal for the 11th round of the shootout, all University of Washington junior keeper LaFontaine-Kussmann could really do was react to what came at her.
Except as the order of shooters reset to the beginning of the shootout, she looked into the face of her opponent and saw an opportunity to seize control.
"When she shot before, I had actually touched it -- I overdove it because she hit it more centrally," LaFontaine-Kussmann said. "It hit off of me and ended up still going in, which was really a bummer. But I could tell that because of that [result] in that first shot that she had, she was really rattled -- she looked super-nervous. So I just kind of told myself that, 'Someone who looks this nervous is probably scared to go the same way again.'
"So I just kind of guessed, and hoped, that she was going to change her mind and switch going the other direction. And that's what she ended up doing, and I really lucked out."
LaFontaine-Kussmann dove, and Washington had one of the biggest upsets in the early rounds of the tournament in recent memory, a win all the sweeter for the Huskies against an opponent that has ended a lot of seasons for the team from Seattle. Sunday's game was the sixth meeting between the Pacific Northwest neighbors in the NCAA tournament. It was the first that didn't end Washington's season. The Pac-10 school may have the larger athletic profile in most sports, but Portland rules the rivalry in women's soccer, winning 26 of the past 29 games (and tying one of the others) between the two in the regular season and postseason.
That's a lot of history adding to the built-in pressure of the toughest tasks in sports, stopping a penalty kick. Yet even after nine successful kicks by the Pilots in front of 3,000 fans on their home field, LaFontaine-Kussmann was right where she wanted to be as she stared down a ball just 12 yards away. A nearly impossible challenge? Sure, but at least it was one she could see coming.
"I'm kind of odd; I actually love the shootouts," LaFontaine-Kussmann said. "I would much rather do shootouts than overtime, just because I actually feel like I'm in control for the first time in a while."
She meant control within the flow of the game, in this particular case a flow that required her to make 13 saves against one of the most talented lineups in the nation before even getting to the shootout. She might as well have been talking about her life during the past three years. Now her goalkeeper coach at Washington, Amy Griffin has worked with her for years, going back to LaFontaine-Kussmann's youth soccer career.
"Maybe deep down she knows the true blessings in life because hers was almost taken away," Griffin said. "I'd never seen her in such pressure situations as I've seen her this year. You wonder, if she thought this was the end of the world and if she didn't come up with that great save that her life would be a disaster, then maybe she wouldn't be such a cool cucumber. Maybe part of it is that she knows it's sports, she knows it's athletics and there are a lot worse things that could happen. And she's just ice; she's like, 'This is super-fun; this is way more fun than doing chemo.'"
One of the top recruits in the nation coming out of high school, LaFontaine-Kussmann played five games as a freshman at California being she was diagnosed with lymphoma in the fall of 2007. She responded well to chemotherapy that winter and resumed a normal academic load the next spring, but she eventually sat out the following season while she made her way back physically. At that point, looking for a fresh soccer start and an opportunity to be closer to her family in the Seattle area, she transferred to Washington, a move that required her to sit out last season as an intraconference transfer.
Finally, on Aug. 27 of this year, nearly three full years after her previous college game, she started in goal for the Huskies against Massachusetts. Naturally, she kept a clean sheet with five saves in a win.
"Oh my gosh, it's one of those indescribable feelings," LaFontaine-Kussmann said of being back on the field. "It's been a long time coming for me to be able to get back to this level and play D-I. And for me, it's even better because this team -- I've played with almost half of the girls just growing up, with club [and the Olympic Development Program] and everything. So it's even more personal because these really are some of my best friends that I've had since I was little.
"It feels like a family, it really does. Like these are my sisters."
It took nearly two full years after the cancer treatment for her to get back to 100 percent physically, to a point where she was able to not just force her way through training but also recover well enough to do it again the next day. For someone just now moving out of her second decade on the planet, that's a sizable portion of an existence tied up in trying to reclaim what cancer tried to take. Nevertheless, as much as the experience shaped her, it is not what she chooses to define herself by.
"It's one of those things where it took a long time to come back, and I think about it now and again, and that will always kind of be in the back of my mind when I'm struggling through things," LaFontaine-Kussmann said. "But at the same time, as an athlete, I just hate using excuses why I can't do something. And I never have used cancer for that because it bothers me -- I don't like writing it off as, 'Oh, it's just because of the cancer.'
"So in a sense, I really have put it out of my mind. I don't really think about it anymore -- other than when I see the scar on my chest, I guess."
As a keeper, LaFontaine-Kussmann is the only player on the field for her team who can survey the entire game, see everything as it develops. That perspective is harder earned off the field.
"It's really given me a chance to see the world in a different way," she said. "In that respect, I cherish the important things a lot more -- family, friends, everything. I always try to see the positives in whatever situation I'm in, but I also don't think about it as a scary time in my life. It was more of a learning experience. It was something that not many people go through, and it was awful to go through, but at the same time, it made me into a better person. I hold on to the good things about it, and I try to forget about the bad things."
And although battling cancer isn't quite the same as playing a soccer game, even against an opponent who has caused Washington as much angst as Portland, the two are not mutually exclusive. If Washington was to make a run to the Sweet 16, many might have picked one of the past two seasons, when superstar midfielder Veronica Perez (who just helped Mexico beat the United States and qualify for the World Cup) was leading the charge. Instead, it was this season, with a host of freshmen playing major minutes and an up-and-down regular season that concluded with losses in five of the team's final seven games.
Maybe it's not the sole cause of the team's success, but it can't hurt to have a soul built around someone who knows a bad day isn't that bad as long as it's followed by another day.
"It's made me into even more of a competitor," LaFontaine-Kussmann said of lymphoma. "There was never a thought in my mind that I wouldn't beat cancer, and I think the tenacity in fighting that has kind of transferred over onto the soccer field. And it's been a positive influence on me. I push a little bit harder, and I push my teammates a little bit harder. I never lose that fighting spirit; that's just not in me anymore."
It's the day after the win, and there is still a giddy quality to LaFontaine-Kussmann's voice. Nobody invested more getting to Sunday's shootout. Nobody enjoyed the result more.
"To be able to play at this level with my best friends and upset a team like Portland, it's an indescribable feeling," LaFontaine-Kussmann said. "It's amazing."
She knows better than most that you don't always get to control that feeling, so it's best to savor it for every second that it lingers.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.