By Victor Skinner
Local Sports Journal
FRUITPORT – Fruitport goalkeeper Conner Deneen isn’t one to dwell on his accomplishments.
He’d rather quietly do his crucial job on his own end of the field, and deflect attention to his teammates.
“They are the reason I do stand out,” Deneen told the Local Sports Journal. “It’s like a quarterback, they need their line to throw the ball.”
Despite his modesty, there’s no denying that Deneen played a key role for Fruitport during its successful drive to a Lakes 8 conference soccer title last year, and may be even more important to a talented but less experienced squad this fall.
The senior varsity goalkeeper earned numerous accolades his junior year, including second-team all conference and all-state honorable mention, helping the Trojans post a 15-4-3 record during his first season as a starter.
With a strong Trojan offense in 2013, which frequently kept the fall in the attacking zone, Deneen may have seen fewer shots on goal than other keepers in the conference.
But he rose to the occasion when it was necessary, keeping the pressure off his goal-scoring teammates and allowing Fruitport to beat perennial power Spring Lake for the Lakes 8 title.
The 5’10” 190 pound netkeeper racked up 165 saves over 22 games last season, with a total of 36 goals against. He ended 2013 with a .821 save percentage and goals against average of 1.636.
“On the field Conner really understands the game so his instincts on where to position himself and where to come off his line are fantastic,” said Fruitport coach Greg Kobylak. “Technically, he never struggles with balls served in the air, whether crosses or long shots.”
“He played every minute of every game in goal last year and that’s the plan this year, too,” he said.
Deneen’s value to his team goes beyond his work in goal, according to Kobylak.
“He knows how to organize the defense really … well,” Kobylak said. “He’s a great leader for this team. He was voted team captain in the off-season. He was a great leader in the weight room and workouts.
“That’s just as valuable to the team as the on-field stuff,” he said.
The low point for Deneen and the Trojans last year came in the district tournament, when they lost to Spring Lake in a dramatic overtime shootout, which allowed the Lakers to capture district and regional titles and advance to the Class B state championship game.
It was hard for Deneen and the Trojans to watch the team they beat for the league title advance to where they thought they should be.
The stinging defeat, however, is already a distant memory for Deneen – as evidenced by the two shutouts he’s recorded against Coopersville and Kalamazoo Central so far this season.
“It’s there, it happened, we move on,” he said.
Deneen and his teammates are focused on their new challenge this fall – to defend the conference title and see how far they can advance in the state tournament.
With a younger team, Deneen’s role will become even more critical, but he’s not worried about the outcome.
“We have a younger team, but we play technical (soccer) … and strive for greatness, so I expect to do as good as last year,” Deneen said.
As far as individual recognition, “I really don’t care what I get personally,” he said. “Our team’s overall (performance) is more important than what I get.”
Deneen’s selfless attitude and dedication carries over into his after-school volunteer work and academics. As a 3.8 GPA student with a 26 ACT score, Deneen should have plenty of prospects to continue his education beyond high school, though he has some unfinished business to attend to first.
“We look forward to beating Spring Lake, as always, as well as teams we haven’t beat before,” Deneen said.
Kobylak said Deneen is already exceeding expectations, which isn’t easy considering Fruitport’s history of high-caliber goalkeepers.
“We’ve had a long line of great goalkeepers here at Fruitport since I’ve been here and before,” Kobylak said. “Some questioned whether he could carry on the tradition. There were not a lot of people expecting him to earn all these awards.
“He stepped up last year, and he’s going to have to step up this year for us, too.”