Time well spent: Senior goalkeeper makes most of final year after two seasons on bench

Senior goalkeeper Kristen Knutson poses for a portrait on Wednesday, Sept. 28, at the Soccer / Lacrosse Complex.

Kristen Knutson had her college plans set at a young age.

From the time she could kick a soccer ball, her dream was to play collegiate soccer for the University of Minnesota.

Years later, Knutson is having a career season as a Division I goalkeeper, but not for the Golden Gophers — she wears maroon and gold for Central Michigan's soccer team. 

Having started all 12 games in goal this season, Knutson helped the Chippewas achieve their best start in program history (10-1-1, 2-1-1 Mid-American Conference). Her MAC-leading six shutouts has put CMU in position to compete for a conference championship in 2016. 

Knutson grew up just outside of Minneapolis in Eagan. The oldest of four sisters, she always wanted to go to the local Big Ten school and stay close to home.

“That’s the big school in Minnesota. You grow up being a Gopher fan,” Knutson said. “I went to a bunch of games growing up and that just made me want to pursue that opportunity.”

A three-year starter at Eagan High School, Knutson earned several accolades, including ESPN Top 20 National Goaltender, 2009 Minnesota State Cup Champion and 2011 All-State selection.

After an illustrious high school career, Knutson earned a scholarship to Minnesota and was finally attending her dream school.  

She played only 17 minutes her freshman season, but became the starter as a sophomore. Knutson tallied 118 saves and a 1.23 goals against average as the team went 11-8-2 and made it to the NCAA Tournament.

Despite her success, Knutson felt something was wrong. She said she felt like she wasn’t given the proper opportunity at Minnesota but saw a chance at a school out of state.  

Peter McGahey — the Minnesota State head coach at the time — had accepted a coaching position at CMU and asked Knutson to join him in Mount Pleasant.

McGahey had previously recruited Knutson at Minnesota State.

“(McGahey) is a phenomenal coach and I wanted to be a part of something he was building,” Knutson said. “I really believed in the culture he was growing and the process and his vision for the future at CMU.”

Knutson arrived at Central Michigan University the next fall but had to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules. She spent the season determined to start in net as soon as she could.

During a training session that spring, however, Knutson tore her Achilles tendon.

“I didn’t even realize it happened, but it was tough after I found out,” Knutson said.

After surgery, Knutson spent the next eight months working on running and healing her leg. While she wanted to get back onto the field, Knutson saw a chance to help team in another way. 

She continued to go to practice every day and did whatever it took to make her teammates better.

She said that while her personal success was important, she learned that nothing was more important than supporting her team.

“I learned that being a part of something bigger than yourself means sacrifice and no matter what we need to be focused on helping the team succeed,” Knutson said. “Even if you can’t help in the exact way you had envisioned.”

One teammate Knutson rubbed off on was fellow goaltender Zoie Reed.  Reed — who started in goal last season — saw the “positive” attitude Knutson had while not playing and said that has kept her motivated this year.

“She taught me how to be a good teammate and that you need to help your teammates whether you are the starter or not,” Reed said.

By the time fall camp came around, Knutson felt ready after playing with the Minnesota Twin Stars — a travel team — over the summer. 

Although she had come a long way since the injury, nothing was guaranteed.

After a “hard fought” battle between her and Reed, Knutson was rewarded when her name was on the opening game sheet as the starter against Duquesne.

“I was very excited but so nervous,” Knutson said. “It had been awhile since I had been in collegiate competition.”

Duquesne had come in as the reigning Atlantic 10 Tournament Champions and looked to start off strong again in 2016.

Two goals by sophomore Alexis Pelafas gave the Chippewas a 2-0 lead. Knutson saved four shots down the stretch and earned the shutout to give CMU its first opening game win since 2012.

As the season has gone on, Knutson has continued to deliver. The senior has tallied five shutouts and has allowed only one multi-goal game.

After struggling against Northern Illinois last Friday by allowing four goals, Knutson rebounded by allowing just one in the last two games against Western Michigan and Miami (Ohio).

Through 12 games, Knutson has earned MAC Defensive Player of the Week honors three times. 

McGahey said her efforts have been crucial to the team’s historic start this season.

“What Kristen is doing now, she has earned," he said. "Kristen has gone out and done her work and grinded and believed in herself. She deserves the lion’s share of the credit in terms of overcoming the challenges and continuing to claw and scratch from where she was at to now. I couldn’t be more proud of her.”

While Knutson is thrilled with her success thus far, she said the credit belongs to the women protecting her.

“My defenders are incredible players and athletes,” she said. “They make my job really easy and I just sit back and watch some really fun soccer. They let me handle a couple shots each game, that way I get to do something.”  

Knutson added that while this wasn’t the future she envisioned for herself as a kid growing up in Eagan, she wouldn’t trade it for anything.  

“I never thought I would take this path," she said. "I couldn’t be more appreciative for all the twists and turns, highs and lows."