Some very well-kept nets

Before every half of every game, Neal Kitson kisses his gloves and taps the goalposts. It’s a ritual the St. John’s senior goalkeeper has kept up since he was 14. But manning the goal line has become a far more intoxicating ritual than his embrace with the metal uprights at either end of the pitch. In fact, being a goalie defines his life.

Kitson discovered soccer at age 3. But he did not wear the protective gloves synonymous with goalkeepers right away. Growing up in an athletic English family, the game of ‘football’ was prominent. So Kitson’s older brother threw him in net because he needed someone to shoot on.

“It’s the love of the game,” Kitson said of his strongest asset on the field. “I was raised on this sport. It’s the love and passion I have for this game; it’s what I love to do.”

So Kitson went from his home net into some much more competitive and less friendly nets, while learning the game he was falling in love with. Throughout high school, he was in contact with St. John’s assistant coach Marc Reeves. Kitson’s decision to attend the University was influenced by Reeves, but the goalkeeping tradition at the school trumped all other reasons to pack his bags for Queens.

Kitson remembers Bill Gaudette, the Red Storm’s goalkeeper from 2001-04, who was drafted ninth overall into the MLS by the Columbus Crew.

He remembers Jason Landers, a Big East Goalkeeper of the Year, his mentor when arriving at St. John’s. Kitson had some big gloves to fill when he stepped into Belson Stadium for the first time.

“This year, Neal’s season is all about improvement,” captain Rory Quinn said. “When he first came here, he struggled a little bit. He wasn’t starting. He gets to the ball a lot better now and his kicking has improved. It’s really nice to see him doing well after he put the time in.”

Kitson currently leads the conference with eight shutouts. If that statistic reaches nine, he will have as many shutouts as wins by the 2007 Red Storm.

The fifth-year senior, who will graduate in January, also boasts a 0.29 goals-against average and holds opponents to an incredible 0.03 shot percentage this year. Kitson already has won three Big East Goalkeeper of the Week awards in 2008.

Head coach Dave Masur also saw the improvement, and knew the 6-footer from Little Neck, N.Y. had the traits to get to this point.

“Two adjectives come to mind: perseverant and optimistic,” Masur said. “Neal has had the ability to stick with it and had the optimism to think he was going to earn his chance.”

Being part of a nationally recognized soccer team is just an added bonus. St. John’s has climbed as high as No. 2 in the national ranks this season.

The team’s first loss of the season to Louisville on Saturday will most likely drop the Storm down a bit, but Kitson is confident their upcoming games will make Louisville seem like a
bad dream.

“We’ve done well for the beginning of the year and it’s an honor to be part of that,” Kitson said. “When you see St. John’s soccer in the polls, you say, ‘Back to where it should be.’ It’s about how to rebound and prepare for the next game.”

Kitson has been informed that there are professional teams interested in his services in net come graduation time.

Granted, there is much to be accomplished for the Red Storm in the meantime, but he can’t help but dream of a future in a sport he loves.

After all, soccer is his life.