Katie Hultin’s interest in soccer was first piqued at the age of 5 when her parents, Wally and Donna Hultin, registered the younger of their two daughters in a Denver-area recreational league.
“Her team was called the Fireflies, and they were just the cutest bunch of little girls,” Donna Hultin recalled. “And they were really good. The won every game by like 15-0 or something, and Katie just loved it. She was hooked.”
A decade later, Katie would have a brief fling with American-style football, earning two letters and a spot on the all-conference team as a placekicker for Denver’s Thomas Jefferson High School. She would also letter in basketball, while dabbling in club softball and golf in the summer.
But it was her first love affair – with soccer – that proved to be the most enduring. And today, Hultin is carving out a national reputation as a junior goalkeeper at Washington State University.
Prior to last Thursday’s 4-1 loss at Utah, the 5-foot-8 Hultin was 3-0-1 in goal for the Cougars and had posted four consecutive shutouts in being named the Pacific-10 Conference’s player of the week. She suffered her first loss and gave up her first goals of the season against the Utes, who outshot WSU 11-2. But she came back on Saturday to make three big saves in a 2-1 road win over Brigham Young University.
Heading into Friday’s 3 p.m. non-conference home game against Loyola Marymount, Hultin is 4-1-1 in her seven starts, having logged 605 minutes in goal. She has allowed just five goals, with all of them coming during last week’s two-game swing into Utah, and has posted a splendid 0.74 goals-against average and .844 save percentage.
“Basically, it comes down to simple hard work,” second-year WSU coach Matt Potter said of Hultin’s recent dominance. “She comes to work every day, committed to being the best she can be and making the most of the moment. And her teammates seem to feed off of her attitude.”
Hultin has a more modest explanation.
“To be honest, it’s the great defense in front of me,” she said. “I haven’t really been tested all that much. Whether it says it or not in the stats, I haven’t had to make many huge saves – knock on wood.”
Still, Potter insists great defense starts with great goalkeeping.
“It breeds confidence throughout the entire team,” he said. “Confidence in knowing you can maybe make a mistake and Katie is still going to be there, and that they still have to get through Katie for it to be a goal.”
When Potter and his staff took over the WSU program last fall, Hultin was listed as a redshirt sophomore goalkeeper and backup to Sara Leibowitz. But she took over in goal after Leibowitz was injured and started 14 games, going 6-7 while making 64 saves and posting a 0.84 goals-against average and .842 save percentage.
“When we got here, Katie was – in some respects – the second-tier goalkeeper,” Potter said. “But as soon as we saw her, we recognized from Day One that it was a situation of basically having two No. 1s.
“When Sara got hurt, we went to Katie without hesitation. And she went on to exceed all our expectations.”
Hultin, who started her soccer career as a field player with the Fireflies, admits she sometimes misses all of the up-and-down action that takes place in front of her.
“I think it would be really fun to get out there and run around and do all of that stuff again,” she said. “And if I’d have continued playing in the field and working on my skills, I’d probably be all right. But (goalkeeping) has become a huge passion of mine.”
Football, it seems, turned out to be more of a passing fancy.
“All I did was kick field goals and extra points. That was all that was allowed,” Hultin recalled of her junior and senior years in high school when she was Jefferson’s No. 1 placekicker.
Still Hultin managed to complete a pass when an errant extra-point snap bounced past the holder and into her hands. The thought of running with the football, she admits, never entered her mind.
“I just knew I had to throw it, and somebody ended up catching it,” she explained. “I don’t know if it even counted, but I remember throwing it.”
Hultin also remembers the odd way in which her fling with football came about.
“It was during a homecoming pep rally my sophomore year and they were pulling one person out of the crowd from each class to try and kick a football,” she said. “And I ended up being that person.”
Not surprisingly, Hultin kicked the ball long and high, impressing the varsity football coach, who was in attendance. And for the rest of her sophomore year, that same coach pestered Hultin to try out for the football team.
“But we told her no,” Donna Hultin said. “I don’t remember even discussing it much. She was also practicing soccer at the time and we didn’t think she could take the time off to practice football.”
But the football coach refused to give in and eventually convinced Hultin’s parents to let her kick for the football team by saying she would only have to attend one football practice a week.
At first, Donna Hultin was more than just mildly apprehensive about sending her daughter and former “cute little Firefly” into the physically demanding, male-dominated world of high school football.
Until the players promised to protect her.
“The coach said the guys on the team were like, ‘Touch her and we’ll kill ya,’ ” Hutlin’s mother explained. “They all felt like Katie hadn’t actually gone out for football, they’d recruited her, instead.”
As a result, her football teammates elected her a co-captain prior to her senior season, and she responded by not missing an extra-point or field-goal kick and making the all-conference team. That same season, she kicked a 30-yard field goal in the fourth overtime to help Jefferson edge rival Kennedy.
“My parents were really so-so about it at first,” Hultin said of her decision to play football. “But I’m glad they finally let me do it, because it was a ton of fun.”
These days, Katie Hultin gets her fun from being the emotional leader of a WSU team (5-2-1) that hopes to make some noise in the perennially tough Pac-10 Conference.
“She’s just a wonderful human being who’s fun to be around,” Potter said. “She knows how to have a good time, but she also knows when it’s time to get serious. That’s why she’s our captain, too.”
“The goal is to stay consistent and emotionally balanced,” explained Hultin. “And if all of us – one through 30 – buys into that, we should be OK.”
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