- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Growing up a short drive from Santa Clara University, Bianca Henninger spent plenty of childhood hours at Buck Shaw Stadium admiring the flair and skill Broncos such as Aly Wagner, Danielle Slaton and Anna Kraus used to make the program one of the most exciting and successful in the women's college game.
But as the coach's daughter on her youth soccer team, she sometimes found herself tasked with the less glamorous duty of emergency goalkeeper when numbers left the squad shorthanded.
A generation of opponents the world over will wish her childhood teammates had been a little more reliable in their attendance.
As she begins her senior season at Santa Clara, the no-longer-accidental keeper is without equal in the college game.
"I would clearly make the argument she's probably the best keeper in the country this year," Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum said of a player his team faced each of the past two seasons. "You don't get goalkeepers of that level every day. I think there's a lot of good goalkeepers in Division I, but I think she's a cut above. I think it's just, for lack of a better word, her general-ship. The way she handles controlling the box, you don't see a lot of female goalkeepers dominate the penalty area like Bianca does.
"She's quick, she's athletic, she's agile -- she's got all those traits you want in a goalkeeper."
By the time she was about 12 years old, she had outgrown the level of soccer in which positions are interchangeable and parents handle the coaching. When the Bay Area club team she wanted to play for proved to be short a keeper, her dad encouraged her to try the position on a full-time basis. It might not have been love at first site for the former defender and holding midfielder, but like any real romance built of more substantive stuff, there was something beguiling enough about the position to make the initial awkwardness worth it. She found, in short, a bit of a subversive streak.
"I think there were some things I definitely had to get used to," Henninger said. "But I think I enjoyed -- I wouldn't say getting on people's nerves -- but just kind of being in there and disrupting people and messing people up a little bit. So that part, in terms of keeping the ball out of the net, came kind of easy, but it was kind of an unorthodox thing for me in the beginning, and then I refined it more, obviously -- at least hopefully."
Hopefully isn't part of the discussion. Even in part-time duty as a freshman, she showed flashes of what was to come, notably saving a penalty kick off the foot of University of Portland star Megan Rapinoe in the heat of one of college soccer's best rivalries. In 2009, She denied Cal star Alex Morgan on a penalty kick, but that was far from the only highlight in what was a breakout campaign. That year, Henninger guided the Broncos back to the Sweet 16 (even scoring a shootout goal in a second-round win against Oklahoma State) after an unthinkable three-year drought without a postseason win for a program that won the national championship in 2001 and played for the title again a year later. She finished her junior year in 2010 with first-team All-American honors, only solidifying her standing.
With goalkeeping a frequent point of criticism in the women's game, Henninger is the rare college keeper athletic enough to be a world-class shot-stopper who can cover from post to post. But it's the work she does to avoid having to take flight a in last-ditch effort to prevent a goal that invariably comes up in talking to coaches like Waldrum.
"Maybe you will make the big save, but maybe the only way you can save it is giving up a rebound, and your team isn't there to follow and you're down 1-0," Henninger said. "If you can just eliminate that in the first place and be a good organizer and be the voice out there for your team, I think that's the difference between the top-notch keepers and the next level down."
For a position with no margin for error, resiliency might also separate those top levels. In that respect, Henninger's finest hour might also have been her most disappointing. A standout for the United States throughout an otherwise disappointing showing for the team in the 2010 Under-20 World Cup in Germany, she made back-to-back shootout saves against Nigeria in a quarterfinal -- only to have both negated for leaving her line too early. Even in defeat, and controversial defeat at that, she stood out and subsequently bounced back with her best college season to date.
There's little reason to think age will get the best of Hope Solo before the 2015 World Cup, the same summer in which she'll turn 34. But whenever an opportunity arises for Henninger, there's every reason to think the kid who used to fill in when her team didn't have enough numbers will someday be her country's first choice.
"I think you have to think about it. If you don't try and make it a reality, at least in your mind, I don't think you're ever going to get there," Henninger said. "It's definitely something I think about. I don't really have a timeline for it, or a schedule or anything, but it's something I aspire to do. I would hope if you're playing at this level, it's something that's on your mind."
Henninger is the best keeper in the country, but given her role on a young Santa Clara team looking to make noise, she's also one of the season's most intriguing characters. So what follows isn't necessarily a list of All-Americans, although some may qualify, but instead a team (slightly tilted toward the front line) of players who will have a great deal of say as to how this season unfolds:
Kerry McBride, D, Marquette: The Golden Eagles finally allowed a goal in their fourth game of the season. Not many are likely to get through a defense led by goalkeeper Natalie Kulla and reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year McBride, a tall, agile defender with wide-ranging responsibilities in Marquette's 3-5-2 formation.
Melinda Mercado, D, Oklahoma State: The crowd that packed Cowgirl Soccer Complex for last season's NCAA tournament quarterfinal against Notre Dame was evidence of how much support awaits a winner in Stillwater, and Mercado is a big reason to believe November could again be busy. She's been a part of 37 shutouts in three-plus seasons and gives a lot of cover for the team's offensive stars like Krista Lopez.
Alyssa Pember, D, Boston College: The senior central defender has stars all around her on the Eagles roster, but the headlines that tend to go their way often come as a result of the work Pember does suffocating opponents in the ACC, a league where every weekend brings a new Hermann candidate to defend.
Courtney Barg, MF, Notre Dame: Coach Randy Waldrum has talked about emphasizing a possession-oriented, Barcelona-like attack to an even greater degree this season, and the unassuming Barg is the perfect fit for anything that emphasizes technical skill, vision and poise on the ball.
Kaitlyn Kerr, MF, Duke: With the addition of freshman target forward Kelly Cobb to a front line that includes Mollie Pathman and Laura Weinberg, the Blue Devils have championship-caliber finishing talent. But a young team also needs a championship pulse, and that's where Kerr comes in as coach Robbie Church's lieutenant on the field.
Ingrid Wells, MF. Georgetown: In the four seasons preceding Wells' arrival, Georgetown went 11-23-4 in Big East play. In the four full seasons since she arrived (including one redshirt season), the Hoyas went 27-15-2 in conference play. That's entirely due to her contribution, but the playmaking dynamo changed the culture in D.C.
Sarah Hagen, F, Milwaukee: Her personal story as a cancer survivor is compelling, but she's also a marvel for her soccer skills. A target forward who is equally adept creating her own chances, she has five goals in four games this season, right on pace for someone with 72 goals in 69 career games.
Alyssa Rich, F, North Carolina: It's easy to get overshadowed alongside names like Courtney Jones, Kealia Ohai and Crystal Dunn, but Rich is the creative playmaker who could make the Tar Heels' attack more than the sum of its parts -- a truly frightening proposition given the quality of those parts.
Lindsay Taylor, F, Stanford: Anyone following in the footsteps of Kelley O'Hara and Christen Press is in for an interesting season. Taylor, of course, doesn't need to match those Hermann winners, and she has help with the likes of superstar freshman Chioma Ubogagu around. But two goals in her first three games makes for an intriguing start.
Furtuna Velaj, F, Quinnipiac: Another player whose life off the field could fill a book, Velaj is as enthralling an individual talent as there is in college soccer. She's given freedom to put her technical brilliance to full use for Quinnipiac, but larger stages await her soon enough.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
Santa Clara goalkeeper Bianca Henninger has no peer in college soccer. Graham Hays profiles her and other players to watch this season.