Emily Kelly is the best soccer goalie ever to play at UB, the career leader in wins. When it comes to turning away opposing shots, she’s without peer. But her best skill might be deflecting credit. 

On Tuesday, Kelly was named the Mid-American Conference Goalkeeper of the Year and first-team all-league for the second time. She leads the nation in shutouts with 11. But she sounds like some fortunate soul, a happy beneficiary. How much of her gaudy statistics does she owe to her defensive teammates?

“All of them!” Kelly said with a laugh. “I mean, for real. Especially this season. Yeah, I’ve had to make some saves. But the shots I’ve faced aren’t at all like in the past. I attribute all of my success, all of the team’s success, to that back line.”

Kelly certainly has a fine supporting cast on the Bulls, who take a 13-1-4 record and No. 1 seeding into Thursday’s 5 p.m. MAC tourney semifinal at UB Stadium.

Freshman Ellie Simmons was named Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday. Payton Robertson, Hannah Callaghan and Leah Wengender all made second-team all-league. 

But there’s one main reason the Bulls are fourth in Division I in goals-against and unbeaten in the league. Kelly, a fifth-year senior from Wilson, is a commanding leader in the net, a veteran keeper whose confidence and athletic ability liberate her teammates to play their attacking style.

“It starts with Emily Kelly,” head coach Shawn Burke said without hesitation. “I’ve been saying this for five years. She’s the best goalie in the conference. While she hasn’t always been recognized as such, we know what she brings every single game. I think your team gets so much confidence when you have someone in net who’s that good.”

Tess Ford (Courtesy of UB Athletics)

Defender Tess Ford is in her fifth season with Kelly. They’ve both started from Day One for the Bulls. They’ve been teammates on the Western New York Flash and FC Buffalo, which plays in a national pro-am league. Ford also wasn’t buying her friend’s claim that her defense deserves all the credit.

“Well, she can say that all she wants,” said Ford, who played for Chris Durr at Williamsville East. “But she’s insane. She’s just crazy in net. She could have no shots during a game, get one crazy shot and she’ll save it easily. 

“She’s always been a solid person that we can trust in the back,” Ford added. “Playing with her, I can see how much her confidence has grown. I think that helps us build confidence in each other. So, it’s been really nice.”

Kelly is the first UB player to be Goalkeeper of the Year in the MAC. She has a school-record 52 wins and is tied for the school record with 33 shutouts — clean sheets, as they call them. Over one amazing 12-game stretch from Sept. 1 to Oct. 16, she allowed one goal as UB went 9-0-3. 

Burke, who is in his ninth season as UB head coach, said Kelly has the refined athleticism of a great goalie. He said she’s the strongest player in the weight room. She has started every game in her five seasons at UB, which he called a testament to her dedication at an athlete. 

Asked what makes her well-suited to her position, she hesitated. “I mean, I loved basketball,” said Kelly, who played point guard as a high schooler at Wilson. “That’s a corny answer, but I loved basketball. I’m better with my hands, I’ll say that. Better than with my feet. I get by, I guess.”

She does more than get by. But it’s that essential modesty, the feeling that so many top athletes have that they’re never quite good enough, that has elevated Kelly to an elite goalkeeper.

“I think what sets her apart is she’s been the number one from day one here, but she trains like she’s the number three,” said Burke, who was named MAC Coach of the Year on Tuesday. “She trains like there’s something to prove, like she’s always trying to fight for a spot. That’s what separates her. That’s why she’s been able to find the success, especially what she’s seen this year.”

Emily Kelly (Courtesy of UB Athletics)

Nikki Bartholomew, the head coach for FC Buffalo, agreed with Burke that Kelly’s athletic ability sets her apart.

“A hundred percent,” Bartholomew said. “He hit the nail on the head. There’s a lot of keepers in that role who are very, very vocal. I think with her athleticism, she’s someone who leads by example with her effort. She’s vocal to her players when needed.”

Kelly and her teammates have gained an additional edge this season from Lucinda Snyder, a mindfulness coach. Snyder teaches techniques to alleviate stress. Ford says Snyder’s improved mental approach has changed the energy within the team this season. 

“She really kind of grounds us,” said Kelly, a communications and psychology major. “Whenever a certain situation arises, whether it’s a major or minor one, we like to check in with her and she talks us through how to deal with it. 

“Honestly, I feel like a mindfulness coach would help anyone, anytime, anywhere, in any situation. I am very glad that she came in my fifth year. I think it has accentuated the circumstance we’re in right now and helped build that chemistry — which we had in the past, but it’s amplified.”

The pressure will be heightened this week, as UB attempts to win its first MAC championship and NCAA berth since Burke’s first year in 2014. If they win on Thursday night, they’ll play for the league championship against the Ball State-Bowling Green winner at 1 p.m. Sunday at UB. 

The Bulls have been knocking on the door in recent years. In the 2020 season, shortened and pushed to the spring due to COVID-19, UB had the most wins in its division and was the highest-ranked team in the league. But Bowling Green got the East spot in the title game because it had a higher winning percentage — due to having a game canceled because of Covid.

Last season, the Bulls went 13-4-3, but lost to BG in the conference semifinals. They had their highest national ranking ever (31st) at one point, and their current 15-game unbeaten streak is the longest in program history. 

Kelly said last year’s team was a special group. She wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. But she said the bond feels especially powerful this season. Maybe it’s the mindfulness. 

“We have that ‘it’ factor,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain it. We just love playing together. We play for each other. Whenever a thing goes wrong, we’re like, ‘OK, that happened. Let’s run through it again and we’ll be fine.’”

Ford said it was the team’s driving goal to finish first overall and get to play the MAC tourney at home. Not having to travel, being able to sleep in their own beds and play on their own field, where they rarely lose, would be a big advantage. It feels like their time has arrived.

“We wanted to be here for the finals,” Ford said. “Now here we are. It’s a really good feeling. Winning it all would be unreal. No words to describe it.”

UB and Miami played a scoreless draw on Oct. 6. The Bulls also tied Ball State (2-2) and Bowling Green (0-0) later in the season. There are no ties in the playoffs. That raises the very real possibility of shootouts to decide games. That’s when a great goalie can make the difference.

“We’d have to get through the OT rule, too,” said Kelly, who hopes to play professionally after college. “But yeah, once playoffs hit, shootouts are always in the back of everyone’s mind.”

Kelly said the last time she faced penalty kicks in a shootout was back in high school. “We won,” she said with a laugh. “That was a long time ago. Oh my gosh, I don’t even want to think about it!”

Burke said the pressure is on the shooters when it comes down to penalty kicks to decide a playoff game. If your goalie stops one of them, it’s generally considered a win.

“It becomes psychological at that point,” he said. “Emily is dialed in. She does her homework. She does her preparation. You want an athlete in there, and that’s what we’ve got.

“A hundred times out of a hundred, I’m picking her.”

***

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.