Former Springdale goalkeeper Mike Zolnierczyk settling in at RMU
Before heading to Robert Morris, Mike Zolnierczyk left his mark on Springdale High School.
He was a three-time All-WPIAL soccer selection, he was named the Class A Player of the Year as a senior and over the course of his last two years, he tallied 26 shutouts and only allowed 28 goals, including eight in his senior season.
Although he got off to a slow start, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound freshman goalkeeper has started to do the same for the Colonials.
Since the last week in September, Zolnierczyk has locked down the starting goalkeeper spot, recorded two shutouts and has produced a 2-1-1 record in his past four games. He’s also made a total of 34 saves in seven games.
“The beginning of the season was definitely an adjustment. Just adjusting to the level and the speed of play was pretty tough,” the former Springdale stalwart said. “But now I feel pretty comfortable with where I am at and I continue to get better each week.”
At the beginning of the year, Robert Morris coach Bill Denniston was rotating keepers to see if one of four would stand out. In his first start against Oakland on Aug. 30, Zolnierczyk gave up five goals and made 10 saves in a 5-1 loss. Then, just over a week later, he allowed three goals and made six saves in a 3-1 loss at La Salle.
Between both of those games, Zolnierczyk faced a total of 47 shots. At the beginning, he said there were several differences from high school that he had to get used to at the collegiate level, and it showed in those games.
“The guys are faster. The through balls are more accurate. The shots are harder and better placed,” Zolnierczyk said. “You always have to be on. You can’t really take breaks. You always have to be talking to your guys to make sure they are in the right place and you are able to do what you’re supposed to do.”
After a few weeks, Zolnierczyk started to settle into his role with the Colonials. In 110 minutes against Howard on Sept. 22, he allowed one goal and made three saves on nine shots. Then, he recorded two clean sheets against Mount St. Mary’s and Fairleigh Dickinson.
That was when the freshman keeper started to stand out among the group.
“He started to look more comfortable,” Denniston said. “We knew he had the ability and he was just making fewer mistakes. Like on crosses, when to come out, when to stay in, when to call, when to punch, and it seemed liked he was coming around and he wasn’t going to make a mistake again. So far, so good.”
During his matchup with Mount St. Mary’s, the former Valley News Dispatch Athlete of the Year made four saves on eight shots, and one of them gave him a nice moment of clarity.
“The kid hit an almost perfect shot towards the top corner and I just barely got there,” Zolnierczyk said. “It kind of made me think in the back of my mind, ‘All right, this is why you’re here. You belong here.’ It definitely gave me a confidence boost.”
Playing the goalkeeper position at the collegiate level is tough for any player. They are responsible for taking command of the 18-yard box, knowing when to go after a ball or when to hold back, and the goalie is also responsible for controlling the defense as a whole.
As a freshman, with an experienced defense in front of him, Zolnierczyk was hesitant at first, but as time has gone on, he’s become accustomed to the responsibility.
“It is a little intimidating at first, but it doesn’t really matter anymore whether you’re a freshman or a sophomore. At this level, everyone is playing for a championship,” Zolnierczyk said. “You can’t really make an excuse anymore, and I know the guys put a lot of trust in me and have helped me improve over the past couple weeks.”
The Colonials have played 12 games this season. Zolnierczyk has started seven of them and has ultimately given Denniston something to count on in the future.
“It’s what you always hope for,” Denniston said. “It’s certainly my job to find someone that’s better in every position, but whenever you have someone that puts their stamp on a position and that’s it for three or four years, it helps the team. So I hope he does well.”
Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .