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Raiders in safe hands with Wyatt Zabinski

Wyatt Zabinski, by his own admission, considers himself a relatively quiet person.

Yet, he just so happens to play a position on the soccer field where communication is about as constant as anywhere else.

“I’ve definitely, my whole life, been a shy person,” Zabinski said, “but being a goalie for over 10 years now, it’s been developing and when I hit the field I switch that and command the back.”

For the past two years, Zabinski has been the Southern Oregon University men’s soccer team’s undisputed starter in goal, living up to the billing of wearing the No. 1 jersey. And in those two years, it just so happens that the Raiders have easily had one of the best defenses in all of the NAIA, with shutouts being recorded at such a frequent clip that it becomes a rather big deal when the opposition scores on SOU.

Even though he’s a quiet guy, he knows his role — and that’s to take advantage of seeing the entire field.

“I feel like the main thing to do is keep the communication, try to keep myself activated within the game because I know I might not have that many saves but that one save at the very end of the game, if I’m not focused, I probably won’t be able to make it,” Zabinski said. “I feel like that’s what I’ve had to do the most this season, just coming out and being big. That just makes it that much more simple for our defense. Other keepers won’t come out for some crosses and those will lead to goal-scoring opportunities and some goals. Coming out and collecting those in the first place prevents those.”

The uniqueness for Zabinski is that playing in front of such an impressive backline is that there are games where he doesn’t even have to make any saves at all — like this past Saturday’s 1-0 overtime win over UC Merced in the NAIA Opening Round, SOU’s first-ever postseason win since starting the men’s soccer program four years ago.

The Raiders (17-2-3), who face fourth-seeded and unbeaten Rio Grande (Ohio) in the second round of the NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship on Monday, certainly take pride in the fact that their keeper isn’t nearly as busy as others. It’s one of the biggest reasons why they’ve recorded 15 shutouts in 2018.

Zabinski, a 6-foot-4 native of Arizona, has only had to make 58 saves in his 22 starts this season — a number that currently ranks him 109th in the NAIA.

That doesn’t mean Zabinski is just standing there doing nothing every time he takes the field.

It’s not like he can just stand up against one of the posts and kick back for 90 minutes while the defensive line in front of him does all the work.

It may seem that way sometimes, but even Zabinski himself knows that he can’t just coast by every time out.

“I think what’s impressed me most about Wyatt is that even when he doesn’t have a lot to do, there’s always something that pops up that he has to make sure he’s sharp mentally for,” SOU head coach Davie Carmichael said. “We defend so well as a unit that he doesn’t always have to do a lot, but he’s always ready if needed. He never switches off and he watches the game develop and he knows, when he’s needed, we can rely on him.”

Reliable indeed.

The Cascade Conference’s co-Defensive Player of the Year last season, Zabinski has improved everywhere you look during an equally impressive junior campaign.

Zabinski’s goals against average has fallen from 0.86 in 2017 to a minuscule 0.40 this year, which currently ranks second in the NAIA. (The only goalkeeper with a lower GAA just so happens to be the one he’ll be facing Monday, Rio Grande’s Richard Dearle.)

His save percentage has also improved this season, going from .753 to .886 after allowing all of nine goals on 67 shots faced on goal.

He certainly isn’t the busiest goalkeeper in college soccer, but he’s getting the job done — and that’s exactly the mindset he takes into every game.

“There’s definitely been some games where I just, honestly, haven’t had to do anything. But, I know when the team needs me that I’ll be there and I’ll be ready,” Zabinski said. “I just try to keep my mind right. Most of the time you’ll probably see me stretching when I’m back there after standing around for 30 minutes. I just always try to keep my mind in it and stay focused because I’ll probably have to make that one save.”

A lot of the time, Zabinski’s one save on any given day is the difference between the Raiders’ current unbeaten run of 20 games staying intact and a rare loss taking place.

As much as he wants to be a well-rounded keeper capable of contributing in all aspects — and in modern-day soccer that’s becoming more and more important — it’s about his defensive responsibilities first and foremost.

“I try to be the best I can at everything — distribution, communication, shot stopping,” Zabinski said. “I feel like I’ve always been a shot stopper and that’s what I’ve always been the best at.”

It’s all led to SOU firmly establishing itself as one of the best defenses around.

And while that sometimes means Zabinski not doing all that much in goal, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s definitely fun in really intense games, but also there’s some times where it’s pretty boring for me because I don’t have to do much,” Zabinski said with a grin. “I’d rather be on a championship team and not have to do that much in some games than be on a team that isn’t winning.”

Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.

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