Occidental starting goalkeeper Theo Atkinson (senior) was not exactly thrilled when he first started in the position at 12 years old.
“One day our keeper decided that he didn’t want to play anymore and so I had to put on the gloves,” Atkinson said.
Although not the debut Atkinson might have hoped for — he was scored on from 85 yards out — this day marked the beginning of his illustrious goalkeeping career.
Fast-forward a decade and he is now the top goalie for the Occidental men’s soccer team (7-1-3 overall; 4-1-3 SCIAC). He has only given up four goals in nine games and has also recorded five shutouts on the season.
Head coach Rod Lafaurie keyed in to how Atkinson has been able to come up big when the team has needed him most.
“He’s been able to make the important saves at the important moments,” Lafaurie said.
Against perennially strong soccer teams like Pomona-Pitzer and Chapman, Atkinson has been crucial in keeping the Tigers in the game, recording eight and seven saves, respectively. Even in the Tigers 2-1 loss Saturday against Redlands — the squad’s first defeat of the season — Atkinson recorded seven saves.
Not only has Atkinson been essential to the defense but, unlike many other goalies, he has the ability to create instant offense. While many goalies choose to punt the ball off a drop kick, Atkinson always utilizes his long throw. From his own box, Atkinson is able to cannon the ball 40 yards to the strikers feet.
Lafaurie acknowledged how the long throw fits the Occidental “90 for 90” style of fast, counter attacking soccer.
“It’s really a weapon,” he said. “It’s pretty direct, quick and accurate.”
Atkinson’s strong arm originated from his days playing quarterback. He was not, however, quite as adept when it came to punting. While playing keeper in indoor soccer, his coach forced him to work on the accuracy of his throw because punting the ball resulted in an instant turnover.
His throw now well-polished, Atkinson has nearly thrown assists from the goalie box. Teams in the SCIAC are scouting him out and playing certain formations in order to stop his throw.
Although Atkinson comes up with big plays on both sides of the field, he is the first to acknowledge how paramount the backline has been in shutting down opponents offense.
“I really haven’t had to make as many saves as the last couple of years,” Atkinson said. “Everybody is thinking one step ahead of where they are. Everybody is shutting it down.”
Lafaurie also praised his team’s overall defense.
“It’s really a combination of good team defense and timely saves,” Lafaurie said. “The defense starts with our forwards. Our midfielders make it very difficult and our overall team defense has been fantastic.”
Centerback Gabe Barrett-Jackson (sophomore) plays directly in front of Atkinson, and he could not be more happy with how his keeper has been playing.
“Theo makes saves that don’t seem possible,” he said. “He’s really an incredible keeper.”
Now, during his second season playing soccer at Occidental, Barrett-Jackson has been all over the field, from from making runs up the middle to clearing balls on either flank.
Barrett-Jackson’s partner in the back line is centerback Ryan Banard (sophomore), who has been a shutdown defender all year for the Tigers. Both centerbacks complement each other well with Barrett-Jackson’s speed and Banard’s defensive experience.
“As a backline as a whole we’re so well connected and we have a really strong family feel on the field,” Barrett-Jackson said.
In his final year as the anchor of Occidental’s backline, Atkinson anticipates that the team will keep improving. In a recent poll, the team was ranked No. 21 in NCAA Division III soccer.
“All the hard work is now paying off as we keep climbing,” Atkinson said. “I have a lot more trust in my teammates. The guys who are playing here are really gifted athletes.”
The Tigers currently sit in third place in the SCIAC and will host Cal Lutheran Oct. 7th.