In an atmosphere that could be filled with tension and unwieldy pressure, Gina Barbieri is a breath of fresh air "… and a snorting laugh to boot.
Originality, you see, is the key to the 17-year-old goalkeeper for the top-ranked St. Mary's girls soccer team.
Barbieri is the kind of person who opts to have senior pictures taken in the mud and perched atop the soccer goal.
She's the type that stirs the pot on long bus rides and then sits back to admire the mania she has inspired.
She's the kind of teammate who constantly reminds you that soccer, after all, is a game and should be fun.
Above all, she's an attention grabber — even when she's not trying.
"Gina is a personality player," says St. Mary's head coach Dave Potter. "Soccer seems to thrive on personality players. Goalkeepers have to have unique personalities — and I think 'unique' is the proper word to use — and Gina sets a new standard, she really does."
Merely pegging Barbieri as a team clown, however, would be a huge injustice. There is no one Potter and company have more faith in as the Crusaders' last line of defense than the 5-foot-4 dynamo.
"My height for games is 5-51/2," she quickly interjects. "That's what I tell people to make myself feel better."
Whatever the dimension, few players have stood as tall in goal wearing the Crusaders' goalkeeper jersey — tie-dyed for Barbieri, of course. With her in goal, St. Mary's has allowed only six goals this season in amassing a 15-0-1 record, and two are considered own goals by fellow defenders. In contrast, the Crusaders have tallied 82 goals this year — including three by Barbieri.
"Combine that personality of hers with a tenacity and fearlessness in standing back in that frame and being willing to go after a ball — knowing that there's going to be a collision and you're going to get hurt in the process — and then wanting to do it all over again, we're talking a serious goalkeeper here," says Potter.
"Bottom line, she's an athlete," he adds. "She can move forward, she can move laterally and she can move with surprising quickness. Gina can just launch herself and will find a way to spring to a shot and extend herself and punch it out."
However the save is made, Barbieri says the foundation was laid well before the shot was taken.
"If you have the skills of a goalie, you're going to get to that ball," she says. "Years and countless hours of blood, sweat and tears going into what happens on the field "… everything I do is reaction.
"You look at me and, I'm not gonna lie, I'm not the skinniest one or tallest one but I go in there and get the job done. At the end of the day, I know my goalie job and the techniques and basic skills of being a goalie. That 18-yard box is my home and, for me, every goal is personal."
When Potter put Barbieri back in goal as a freshman, she couldn't have known then how vital of a cog she would one day become for St. Mary's.
"For me, I hoped we could develop a player we could drop the ball back to, who could alleviate pressure, restructure the attack
and launch from the back with confidence," he says. "We arrived at that last year, one year ahead of time, and were able to reorganize things through her. It's only gotten better this year."
Potter has kept track of the goalie's touches this season, and Barbieri had the 100th ball of the season dropped back to her during Tuesday's 4-1 state semifinal win over Oregon Episcopal.
"To do that, you have got to have a player who is skilled and confident and wants the ball," says Potter, in his fourth season at St. Mary's. "That's a scary place to be when there's an attacker like a Mackenzie Krieser or Anna Thorndike or anyone with speed and aggression nearby. It has to be dropped to you correctly or you could be in real trouble."
Barbieri concedes that improving her foot skills has been a work in progress but comes natural by now.
"I was definitely more scared in the beginning because once they've played the ball back to you, you can't pick it up and have to use your feet and play the ball with your body," she says. "I've gotten some crazy balls back in the past, almost like my own team was shooting on me."
"That's probably the most stressful part of my game, getting the ball from my teammates," adds Barbieri. "Who knew that would be it?"
Likely anyone who has spent any time with Barbieri, where aloof and unflappable go hand-in-hand.
"It's a lot of pressure back there," she says of her position. "You have to know all sides of the game and think like a forward and read the feet. It's a place where you have to be able to have the self-confidence and confidence among your peers to talk to them, but at the same time you're standing in a box for 40 minutes at a time. I've been alone for long periods of time and there's been times where I've been found talking to myself."
Such confinement helps spur on the rush Barbieri gets when opposing teams mount an attack. She's moved up to wing when games were in hand and scored five goals during her career, but nothing compares to being the queen of denial.
"I get really excited when I get to go out and score a goal," she says, "but stopping a goal one-on-one or even on a nice shot over the top, that's what I like. That's my candy."
Barbieri is also the first to deflect credit to those positioned in front of her. From sweeper Lindsay Barnum to defenders Nicole Martin, Mattie Gambee, McKenna Barnum, et al, Barbieri insists she's the beneficiary of their talents.
"As a goalie, the most important thing to me is my defense," she says. "Defense is a pretty hard position and gets overlooked quite a bit, but you have to be able to trust the people you're working with and the St. Mary's defense is top-notch."
It's that sisterhood, spurred on by Barbieri's playful approach, that has landed the Crusaders in their first state championship final against third-ranked Catlin Gabel (13-2-3). Kickoff is 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Liberty High in Hillsboro.
"We have a big game coming up and it's getting serious and down to the wire," says Barbieri, "but if you take all the fun out of it, you aren't going to play well. My role as one of our five captains is to try to be a mediator and keep things on a lighter note and definitely remind people we're all there to have fun and that soccer is a great game to play."
Catlin Gabel has won five straight and gone unbeaten in its last 15 games, sporting 64 goals scored against nine allowed thus far. The perennial power placed second a year ago and was the 3A/2A/1A champion from 1994-2004. The Eagles also won the title in 1992 but a runner-up showing in '93 kept the streak from being even more impressive.
The challenge may be great, but Potter has no doubt Barbieri will be on point.
"Gina has a tendency to rise to the occasion," he says.
Of all her tendencies, that certainly stands as the most flattering.
"OK, fine, I'm a snorter; I'm proud of it," she says of the startling noise that leaks out when she laughs. "It's in my family. It's loud and makes other people laugh, which is helpful. You always have that one awkward time when you're the only one laughing, but once you snort, everyone starts laughing. It's good for everyone."
Just like Barbieri is good for the Crusaders.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail email@example.com