MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. - After a one-two punch of off-season meniscus surgery, and finding out you have mononucleosis on the first day of preseason, your average student-athlete wouldn't dream of ending that season an All-American. Georgia College & State University junior goalkeeper Mary Rob Plunkett isn't your average student-athlete.
When Plunkett was named Third Team All-American by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, not only did she become the first fall season All-American in the NCAA history of Georgia College athletics, but she also capped a wild season with a special honor.
The Westminster Prep graduate from Augusta, Ga. joined the Bobcats as a freshman in 2007, behind two-year starter Kristen Moore (Newnan, Ga.) on the depth chart. Moore was dotted all over the Georgia College recordbooks as one of the top goalkeepers in program history, but at an imposing 6-foot-1, Plunkett had all of the tools and natural ability to become a top-level netminder.
The opportunity to work with goal-keeper specific coaching day in day and day out at the Georgia College has helped bring out her full potential as a top level goal-keeper.
After taking over the starting job halfway through her rookie year, Plunkett had a breakthrough sophomore season, taking second-team All-Peach Belt Conference (PBC) while posting a paltry 0.47 GAA and .886 save percentage along with nine shutouts. The team was 13-3-4, and made a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.
All of this, plus the challenge of a notably tougher schedule in 2009 had Plunkett excited for her junior year. Then came pre-season physical day, where her season came to an abrupt halt.
One month removed from knee surgery, Plunkett had trouble breathing and had an extremely sore throat during the 2-mile run assessment, the first preseason drill. Diagnoses of tonsillitis and strep throat were considered before a positive test for mono was revealed. As a result, Plunkett missed the entire preseason and the first week of classes.
"When I found out, it was tough," said Plunkett. "I kept thinking, ‘here's another thing' on top of recovering from surgery. I had to go home to stay with my family, and it felt weird to be missing preseason, to be out of the loop."
"All I could do when I first got back was ride on the stationary bike and do the arm bike. No soccer stuff. Even when I got back on the field, my reps had to be cut way short because I kept getting tired and running out of energy."
Head coach Juan Pablo Favero knew the competitor he had at goalkeeper, but wanted to make sure she focused on the big picture.
"Even when she was not playing, and when she was most sick, she wanted to come out to watch her teammates train and play, and we had to nudge her back to her home to get rest."
The only other goalkeeper on the roster, freshman Taylor Mulryan (Cumming, Ga.) was out with injuries at the time, so All-PBC junior defender Jessica Binkowski (Cumming, Ga.) stepped into the net for the first month. Binkowski had not played as a goalkeeper since her junior year of high school, playing in the State Championship game for Blessed Trinity Catholic School.
"I found out two days before our first game that I'd definitely be the starting keeper," said Binkowski. "Being a goalkeeper is a lot different feeling. At that first game, I'll be honest, I was pretty scared. You're the last thing keeping the other team from scoring. You have no one to cover your back. That's a lot of pressure."
Binkowksi posted shutouts in those first two games, victories over Queens (N.C.) University and Florida Southern College, even earning PBC Goalkeeper of the Week.
Things got a little tougher as the competition level increased, and the ‘Cats lost three of the next four games, all at home.
"I remember her telling me how bad she felt about some of our early critical loses and we told her just to focus her energy on getting healthy," said Favero. "Thankfully she did, and together with her teammates their resilient and persevering attitude pulled us through to another third place finish in the Peach Belt and a third trip to the PBC final four."
Plunkett got back on the field to a rousing ovation from her team and the Bobcat fans for the first time Friday, Sept. 11 after halftime against Lincoln Memorial University. It was fireworks night at Bobcat Field, and Plunkett provided some spark of her own, nabbing three shots to preserve the team shutout in a 0-0 nail-biting tie. She played 65 minutes, but probably couldn't have gone a second more.
"It wasn't bad until I got to the sidelines," revealed Plunkett. "Every time there was a break, I could feel my energy go down. I was pounding energy bars and glucose tablets, and we had a special signal I was supposed to give coach when I felt like I couldn't go any more. I didn't feel good, but I felt good enough that I could help the team."
Her first start came two days later against No. 11 Carson-Newman College, shutting them out for the first half with five saves, but she didn't play an entire game until the Sept. 20 2-1 victory over Barry University. From that date on, no team posted more than one goal on the ‘Cats for the remainder of the regular season.
"It is scary to think about what could have been if she had not gotten sick, and we would have been at full strength all year," said Favero. "Once she got healthy she had some great performances including the shutout against Flagler where we knew she was finally back making three point-blank saves, as well as the shutout against Columbus State where she made some world class saves to keep the score at 0-0."
A seven-game stretch without a loss ensued, with the goalkeeper's health a large catalyst for that success. Plunkett agrees that that was the start of her full recovery.
"Early on, I had trouble with my aggressiveness, the quick spark to come out on one-on-ones. I could always catch a ball, but I was concerned about my reaction time and recovery time. If I needed to come out, could I get back in time? I needed more confidence in me, to be less timid, and I didn't get that until close to the end of the year."
A 0-0 tie with the defending conference champs and No. 3 team in the nation, nabbing career-high 11 saves was just the ticket.
"The Columbus game was where we upped the competition level. It was the first time I felt I could truly play with no questions asked."
Plunkett was named All-PBC First Team at the end of the regular season, adding first team All-Southeast Region nods from both the Daktronics and NSCAA award programs. She finished her junior campaign with an amazing 0.59 GAA and .896 save percentage. She made 86 saves and posted five shutouts. Her save percentage ranks fourth in the nation, while the GAA puts her 16th.
"She's an imposing figure physically. With her size, she can be quite intimidating for strikers," said goalkeeper coach Chris Davidovicz. "She also has great quickness and footwork for her size. Technically, she's one of the best goalkeepers anywhere."
Plunkett's goals remain team-focused.
"We've got our sights set on a National Championship. It all starts in January with workouts. Personally, I'd love to see us go undefeated. I think we can do it."
The GCSU Department of Athletics, winners of the 2008-09 PBC Commissioner's Cup, sponsors 10 varsity athletic programs at the NCAA Division II level. As a Division II program, GCSU prides itself on balancing the life of the student-athlete, evidenced by the Bobcats' multiple appearances in post-season competition as well as documented academic success and community-service involvement. Sign up at Twitter.com username GCSUSID for up-to-the-minute reports, and visit www.GCSUBobcats.com to nominate your favorite former Bobcats and Colonials to the GCSU Athletics Hall of Fame.