Not many people saw the UCSB women’s soccer team’s season going the way it did this year — not just because of the significant improvement by the team as a whole, getting its most wins in a season since 2009 — but also because of the big shoes filled by the smallest player on the field.
Listed at 5’4’’, sophomore goalkeeper Beth Ritter does not possess the height typical of a goalkeeper. Yet, she established herself this year as an elite player in the Big West, leading the league in shutouts and becoming the centerpiece of the Gaucho defense. What seems more improbable is that none of it should have happened.
A career-ending injury to starting senior goalkeeper Makenna Henry in the beginning of the season gave way to Ritter emerging as UCSB’s goalkeeper of the future. With one collegiate career beginning and the other coming to an end, something special between Ritter and Henry developed through the course of the season: a relationship strengthened by adversity and friendship.
“Mak is my number one role model on this team,” Ritter said. “I learned so much from her work ethic and her desire to play well and get better every single day … she’s the captain of our team, so she leads like no other and I just try to be like her as much as possible.”
Although they are two years apart in age, the two have a lot more in common other than just being goalkeepers for the Gauchos. In fact, going back to last season, the two have shared a common bond with one another.
In Ritter’s first year, she sat out the entire year as a redshirt freshman recovering from knee surgery. Before that, Ritter did not play in her final two years in high school because of knee injuries suffered before. With five knee surgeries in total, Ritter did not know if she would ever step onto the field again.
“It was hard in college to watch my team play and not really be a part of it other than just a cheerleading aspect,” Ritter said.
While Ritter was recovering during her first year, Henry suffered a right knee injury during a pre-conference game that severely limited her abilities. Henry toughened out the injury for the entire season even though she was forced to play with a knee brace.
That knee brace brought with it its challenges: a reduction in her mobility, agility and even how she kicked the ball. Yet, one player was always there for Henry the entire season despite all the hard times.
“I was struggling to get through season, [but Beth] was helping me all the way through, giving me little pick-me-ups here and there,” Henry said. “It was nice getting through a training session with someone who knew exactly what the struggles were.”
Ritter knew exactly what those struggles were considering she had been dealing with knee injuries since high school and still at UCSB. For Ritter, her first year playing with Makenna was more than just learning and getting healthy; it was the start of her becoming a soccer player again.
“[Makenna] used to bring me out when I was injured and work with me even if I couldn’t run, if I couldn’t dive,” Ritter said. “She would kick balls to my hand when no one else even acknowledged that I was on the team. She really set me up for the opportunity to start playing.”
Flash-forward to this year and a fully healthy Ritter is able to finally play soccer for the first time in years, making her UCSB debut in the second game of the season against Weber State in a 1-1 draw.
What she originally thought was going to be a year of cheerleading on the bench suddenly became a lot more when Henry could no longer go on playing injured.
In her first game taking over for Henry versus Pacific University, Ritter had to deal with the usual nervousness, but instead of concentrating on herself, Ritter kept one person in mind the entire time.
“What was really going through my mind was don’t let [Makenna] down. You’re playing for her right now,” Ritter said. “That’s all I needed to tell myself, play for Makenna, because as long as you focus on that, you’re not going to worry about yourself and worry about your decisions. I knew she would be proud of me if I played well.”
Not only did UCSB win that game in overtime 1-0, Ritter was correct in making Henry proud of her when she revealed what she was thinking about during the game to Henry.
“She actually did reveal that to me in one of our talks that we always have after our practices,” Henry said. “It’s a really huge honor to hear that from someone you respect as a person and as a goalkeeper. When she told me that, I was at a loss for words.”
From that game on, Ritter showed what she was capable of accomplishing when fully healthy. Stepping in for Henry, Ritter had one of the best seasons by a UCSB goalkeeper ever recorded. At one point in the season Ritter had five straight shutouts, ending the season with the most in the Big West with eight and coming in second in save percentage at .826.
Nevertheless, Ritter is quick to point out that it would not have been possible without her defenders and what she learned from Henry.
“She took the time after practice to tell me how she always carries me with her out in the field,” Henry said. “Whatever influence I’ve had on her, either leading by example on and off the field, it was really cool to see her succeed like that and to know I had some positive effect on her success.”
With Ritter now taking over the reins for UCSB, she remains as motivated as ever and does not take for granted any moment she is on the field, considering the years she spent off it.
“In this weird way our injuries kept us closer together because we understood the challenges that came with being injured,” Henry said. “We were able to be each other’s support system and each other’s confidants.”
If there ever was a case of injuries bringing a stroke of serendipity with it, look no further than Makenna Henry and Beth Ritter.
A version of this article appeared on page 8 of November 6th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus.