It all started between two pine trees in the backyard.
That's where Erin Kane (St. Charles North) got her first taste of what it's like to be a goalkeeper.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee junior's current standing as one of the nation's best collegiate netminders.
"I loved growing up with two older brothers," Kane said. "They would stick me in goal and shoot soccer balls at me all day. I more than held my own, though."
Once the backyard battles and a standout prep career were over, Kane chose UW-Milwaukee over several other higher-profile schools for a number of reasons. First, there was the early exposure she had gotten to the school's men's coaching staff through attending Camp Shootout, a renowned goalkeeper summer camp in Milwaukee.
Kane also figured she would have the chance to start immediately as a freshman for the Panthers and was also attracted to the high level of success the program has enjoyed recently, which includes winning the last seven Horizon League regular season titles and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tourmanent in each of the past two years.
UWM is also undefeated in its last 27 regular season conference matches (25-0-2) dating to October 2003 and is 43-1-3 in the Horizon league since 2000.
"Being a mid-major, we can fly under the radar a little bit and there are teams out there that have never heard of us before," she said. "But the bad part of about it is that we have to work extra hard to get a bid into the NCAA Tournament if we don't win the conference tournament."
If Kane continues to perform like she has since arriving on campus, that won't be a problem. Even with the bar set high in recent years, the program has reached new heights since she's been minding the net.
Making it to the second round of NCAA Tournament was a program first and Kane's name already is all over the school record books. Her 34 career shutouts are far beyond school's previous standard (19) and she is three victories away from tying the school record for career wins. She has eight shutouts in 2007 and her career goals-against average ranks among the top 10 marks in NCAA Division I history. She also has been a part of six scoreless streaks in her career that lasted over 300 minutes and been named conference player of the week on six occasions.
The 2006 season ended in a tight 1-0 loss to eventual national runner-up Notre Dame but the year was still memorable, as the Panthers set all-time team seasonal records for wins (16), winning percentage (.773), goals allowed (10) and goals against average (0.44).
"The success we're having is a big deal to us and we have a ton of talent on the team this year; we just have to finish strong," she said. "Individually, my goal is to keep improving from year to year but I've been notorious for putting too much pressure on myself."
Keeping that edge can be vital, however, when playing a position that often is not involved in the flow of the action. Kane estimates playing in goal as being 75 percent mental and she ranks communicating with defenders as perhaps being more important than any physical trait she possesses.
"The physical parts -- athleticism and reaction time -- come from practice but it's hard to really train in-season because you're body just can't take it," she said. "During the summers I train almost every day and you just hope that leads you through the year."
The stretch run this year has Kane focused on team goals rather than individual accolades. Besides finishing out league play, UWM (8-3-3, 3-0-1 in conference) will face a tough test when the Panthers travel to take on No. 5 Texas A&M in the regular season finale Oct. 26. And Kane is already looking forward to a weekend trip next fall to face perennial national powers North Carolina and Duke.
"We're proud of what we've accomplished," Kane sdaid. "We're starting to get a little notorierty and it's exciting for our program."
* Another of the top women's soccer players in the Horizon League is Loyola sophomore forward Cynthia Morote-Ariza (St. Igantius). Her nine goals in 2007 already have tied the school record for most goals in a season, which she tied last year as a freshman. And heading into this week, Morote-Ariza has scored 24 points, which is within striking distance of the school-record 27 points she tallied in 2006.
She was awarded last week's Horizon League Offensive Player of the Week honors when she scored four goals and an assist in three Loyola wins. Included in that span was registering her first career hat trick in a 3-0 win over Cleveland State on Oct. 5, connecting for the match-winner in double-overtime in a 2-1 decision over Illinois State last Sunday and assisting on the match-winner in a victory over Valparaiso on Oct. 2.
Morote-Ariza won several individual honors after her record-setting freshman year. Some of the accolades she earned included being named first-team all-Horizon League and the conference Newcomer of the Year, in addition to winning the conference tournament MVP designation and receiving a nod as a second-team Freshman all-American by Soccer Buzz Magazine.