Wallace shines on defense

Published 10:01 am Thursday, October 12, 2017

By Chris Cook


For every touchdown pass, there’s an offensive lineman who keeps his quarterback upright. For every no-hitter, there’s a catcher whose pitch calls dictate each at-bat. For every fastbreak dunk, there’s a playmaker on the other end of the floor who set the whole sequence in motion.

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For every shutout earned by the Longwood University’s women’s soccer team, there’s a quiet playmaker by the name of Sydney Wallace who has become the unsung keystone of the Big South’s stingiest defense.

The reality of sports is that players like Wallace defer fame to their flashier teammates, those who score the breakaway goals or make diving save after diving save. Longwood’s roster has its share of each, but since Wallace assumed her position in the middle of the Lancer backfield in 2015, no team in the Big South has allowed fewer goals than Longwood.

“She’s so under the radar,” said Head Coach Todd Dyer, who, alongside associate head coach Rich Stoneman, recruited Wallace out of Courtland High School in Fredericksburg.

“She never draws attention to herself, but she’s such an absolute monster on the field. It’s just so subtle, so smooth and it looks so easy. She’s so unassuming and quiet in her dialogue and actions, but it’s so effective and so vital. She’s a rock. You never even think about her, but she’s out there doing everything we need done.”

Outside of her actual on-field play, Wallace does herself no favors in terms of self-promotion. She rarely acknowledges her game-changing impact, and given that there are few, if any, stats available to prove the effectiveness of a single defender, her effect on the game rarely shows up next to her name in the box score.

She gets no statistical credit for the one-on-one battles she wins, the shots she blocks or the attacks she disrupts. Her impact, like her off-field demeanor, is quiet and self-effacing, seeking not the fleeting glory of an upper-90 goal, but rather the discreet effectiveness of a closed shooting lane or an intercepted pass.

“I don’t even care about stats, honestly,” Wallace said. “Well, shutouts. I love shutouts. Whenever we get a shutout, that’s when I feel like I’ve done my job.”

Wallace has engineered a Big South-leading seven shutouts this season, including back-to-back clean sheets against Winthrop and Presbyterian this past week. That’s nothing new for the Lancers, who have allowed just 48 goals in 51 games with Wallace in the lineup over the past three seasons.

Statistical credit for those shutouts goes to Longwood goalkeeper Maria Kirby, but she, like the rest of her teammates, is quick to point to the real linchpin of Longwood’s defensive success.

“I face a certain amount of shots per game, but I’d be seeing way more — which would mean more goals — if Sydney weren’t in front of me,” said Kirby, who is in the midst of a historic career herself. “I think she’s the best defensive player in the conference. She’s amazing.”

Kirby is the player who has the best view of Wallace’s impact on the game, and she is also the one who most benefits from her presence. Longwood’s Division I leader in saves, save percentage, goals against average and shutouts, Kirby has been a first-hand witness, time and time again, to Wallace’s ability to single-handedly affect an opposing team’s entire game plan.

“Other teams try to avoid her as much as possible,” Kirby said. “They know she’s going to win the ball, and she’s physical and she’s good in the air. She can stop any forward we see. They try to go to the other side or maybe try to go over the top, but they rarely go right at her. There aren’t many forwards, any really that I’ve seen, that can get by her.”

If Kirby’s job is to stop the shots she faces, then Wallace’s is to stop anything from becoming a shot in the first place. Longwood has done that at an exceptional rate since Wallace joined the team, allowing the third fewest shots on goal per game in the Big South over the past three years. Over the past two years — during which Wallace has played every single second of every single game — only Campbell has allowed fewer shots on goal per game.

And while Kirby has gotten a front-row seat to watch Wallace’s rise to Big South dominance, the rest of the conference has taken notice as well. As a sophomore in 2016, the Big South coaches voted Wallace as one of four defenders on the All-Big South first team. This season, she was the third-leading vote-getter from the league’s coaches for Big South Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, netting a pair of first-place votes from the conference’s 10 head coaches.

This year Wallace has a legitimate shot at becoming Longwood’s first Big South Defensive Player of the Year, an award the conference has given to a goalkeeper six out of seven times since it was first instituted in 2010.

That goalkeepers would dominate that award is no surprise, given the breadth of statistics available to gauge their effectiveness. Even Kirby, who this season leads the conference in goals against average, save percentage and shutouts, is in serious consideration for the award; however, it’s Wallace whom opposing coaches have to game plan for.

From that perspective, Dyer — now in his 24th year as head coach and founder of the Longwood program — said he would have the only real solution to overcoming the dilemma of Sydney Wallace: Avoid her entirely.

“If I were playing against Longwood, I would stay away from Sydney and go at somebody else,” he said.