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Teammates on and off the field

Erica Stein and Kaele Leonard split time in goal and as co-chairs of Emory's relay for life

By Brian Burnsed
NCAA.org

It began with an unpleasant surprise.

Neither Erica Stein nor Kaele Leonard knew the other existed when they decided to come to Emory in the fall of 2009. Each thought they’d be the lone new goalkeeper on the women’s soccer team. Each thought they wouldn’t have to spend four years competing with someone who yearned for their valuable minutes between the posts. Then Stein got a call from a team captain shortly before she arrived on campus: “Are you excited you’re going to have a freshman training partner?”Stein saw action as a freshman while Leonard nursed an injury. Over the next three seasons, the pair would alternate halves in goal.

“Not exactly,” Stein thought.

But, for Stein and Leonard, that unpleasant surprise morphed into what has become a lasting friendship, which extends well beyond the white lines surrounding Emory’s pitch. Together, they’d go on to participate in and eventually oversee Emory’s successful Relay for Life cancer fundraiser. They’d also split time – almost evenly – in goal.

For the past three seasons, Emory has had defied soccer convention and fielded two goalkeepers in every match. Stein started each one while Leonard was always called upon when the second half began. And despite their disparate styles of play – Stein is cerebral, Leonard more athletic – their minutes played, goals allowed and save percentages mirrored each other’s through their careers. The Eagles rode the unique arrangement to a UAA conference championship in 2011 and an appearance in the DIII Women’s National Championship Game last season. Through it all, competition, ego and jealousy were never strong enough to fracture their friendship or hinder their successes on and off the field.

“They definitely respected each one’s athletic ability and strength,” Emory women’s soccer head coach Sue Patberg said. “I think if they didn’t respect each other’s ability in the goal – they’re competitive, Emory students are competitive kids – we would’ve heard from them, but we didn’t. It was a special situation.”

Stein and Leonard both spent much of their freshman season behind an upperclassman on the bench, where any initial tensions quickly evaporated. The two also shared a dorm hall, which helped keep competitive conflicts at bay. That season, Leonard routinely told Stein about her involvement with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life – a fundraising event in which team members take turns walking throughout a 24-hour period in a show of solidarity with those battling cancer – when she was in high school. Stein’s grandmother passed away from pancreatic cancer during the fall of her freshman year at Emory, so she was eager to participate. Cancer had touched Leonard’s family as well. The 24 hours spent camping out or walking on the track in the spring of 2010 changed the direction of their college lives.  

“I dedicated it to my grandmother,” Stein said. “I was so moved at the event that I decided I wanted to apply to the executive committee from there.”

Involvement at the committee level led to the pair being named co-chairs of the event by their senior year. This year, the duo successfully pushed for Relay for Life to become a chartered organization at Emory, which meant the school would offer financial support for the event. As they balanced soccer and class with their responsibilities to the charity, which involves overseeing a 52-person executive committee, the duo helped raise more than $61,000 for the American Cancer Society. Emory recognized this year’s relay – held on March 29, 2013 – with the school’s Outstanding Service Program of the Year award.

The event’s impact is plainly visible on campus, which is home to an American Cancer Society Hope Lodge – a refuge for cancer patients to stay in free of charge while they receive treatment. The money raised by Relay for Life helps support services like the Hope Lodge as well as research; Emory has several active American Cancer Society research grants.

“The money we raise is so tangible,” Leonard says. “It’s so visible here at Emory and so it makes it even more passionate about it because it comes back to things that are right in front of us that actually help our campus.”

Their success with Relay for Life, however, could’ve been derailed had things not gone smoothly on the field. When their sophomore season arrived, Stein and Leonard both knew they’d be competing for the starting goalie spot. That was the only time their friendship was tested, they say, the only time that the competitive tension was palpable. Given their different styles of play, they assumed one would win out. Stein is the shorter of the two, but fundamentally skilled, adept at organizing the defense in front of her and calm in the face of a fast break. Leonard, meanwhile, is taller, more athletic – she was also an All-American in the 400 meters for Emory’s track and field team – and skilled in the air.  

“It was tough for us because they didn’t know what to do with both of us,” Stein says. “She’s pushed me to become a better athlete. I couldn’t be more grateful to have a training partner like her.”

Early in that sophomore season, Patberg started to give Stein time in goal during the first half and brought in Leonard in for the second, assuming that one of the goalies would eventually start making enough mental mistakes to take herself out of contention. But that never happened. The Eagles finished the year 16-2-4, took second-place in their conference and made the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division III Women’s Soccer Championship. The next season, as juniors, Leonard played only 39 more minutes than Stein – Leonard played more due to overtimes – and their statistics were nearly identical. Stein allowed two goals to Leonard’s three and Stein’s save percentage (.882) was nearly on par with her teammate’s (.909). On this season’s march to an eventual 1-0 loss to Messiah in the NCAA championship final, their numbers were oddly similar again. Each keeper allowed six goals and Stein and Leonard saved 85 percent and 86 percent of the shots taken against them, respectively. With the team thriving, neither sought more playing time.

Through it all, Patberg never heard complaints from other players about the team’s unconventional arrangement in goal. Eventually, she said, picking one over the other would’ve done more harm than good, so she simply stuck with what was working. Despite the duo’s success, Patberg doesn’t intend for time-splits to become the norm at Emory now that Leonard and Stein have graduated – both received their diplomas in early May. The chemistry likely couldn’t be duplicated.

Stein now wants to pursue a career in advertising or marketing, while Leonard has her sights set on medical school. While their paths will lead in different directions, they both say they’ve made a lifelong friend out of what could’ve been a four-year nemesis.

“Everybody is so surprised that we’re such good friends,” Leonard said. “But Erica and I put the team first.”