She's a keeper: Freshman goalie showing Alabama soccer's in good hands

Courtesy Alabama Athletics
Jonathan Anderson

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Goalkeeping is about more than stopping shots.

Since the beginning of the Wes Hart era at Alabama soccer, his teams have been built around a core set of principles: high pressure in all areas of the pitch, building attacks from the back by passing through opponents, and most importantly, a cohesive and stingy defense. 

However, in order to accomplish these tasks, a lot of responsibility rests on the shoulders of one player.

“I’m responsible for, one, keeping the ball out of the net and, two, making sure that everyone is in their positions,” freshman goalkeeper A.J. Crooks said. “I’m pretty much holding everyone accountable for their own jobs. I’m the one who’s telling them where they need to be, telling them where to pass next or look next, and I’m also the one keeping track of the other team’s forwards and where they’re at. Just positioning everyone in the right place so we don’t get in a bad spot on the field. 

"Then I’m also one to be able to distribute the ball, whether that’s to our defenders, forwards, or midfielders to be able to get us out of those hard positions on the field.”

Crooks knows the trade well. She’s been between the sticks seemingly from the beginning of her career. Introduced to the game at the age of three by her best friend and neighbor, Morgan Patea, whose family were huge fans of the game. Crooks decided to join Patea’s team and has been in the game ever since. 

Thrust into goal almost immediately because of her height, Crooks initially hated the position, but the allures of goalkeeping ultimately won her over.

“I learned to love goalkeeping probably when I was around the age of 12 or 13,” Crooks said. “I loved it because I was able to make those big saves and be there for my team when they needed me most.”

Goalkeeping is mostly a thankless position. Much like the kicker on a football team, they can succeed 99 times out of 100, but the memories of the 99 normally don’t outlast the memory of the one that gets through. 

When the rest of your teammates are caught out, the goalkeeper is looked to bail them out, to prevent the goal, and to organize the lines again. Despite the errors elsewhere that led to the shot attempt, when the ball is in the back of the net, goalkeepers typically shoulder the blame.

“You’re going to have times where a goal is going to get in and you guys are down 1-0 or you lost the game because of that bad goal but you can’t really let that define you or your play,” Crooks said. “If I let in a goal or if I make a mistake, I want to learn from it, and I move on right away. I don’t dwell on it because it really does nothing and that makes not only me do worse, but if I take it out on the team it makes them do worse as well.”

Propelled in the sport by the support of her parents – neither of whom had played the sport – and the coaches she had along the way, Crooks found great success with her hometown club, the Spokane Sounders, where she won back-to-back state championships in 2017 and 2018. Crooks also attended camps with the u15 and u17 national team. 

After her high school career had finished, Crooks enrolled early at Alabama to adjust to her new team and college life as well as speed up her recovery from injury.

“Coming in the spring was a game changer,” Crooks said. “I was rehabbing from an ACL tear at the time, so coming in really progressed my rehab and made things go a lot quicker. It made me more prepared for this fall. If I were to have come in the summer and not really known what college soccer was about, I don’t think I’d be in the position I’m in right now.”

Crooks has always been a competitor and knew that from the moment she arrived on campus, she was not going to wait around for her turn to make an impact on the field. Her efforts in rehab as well her drive to make an impact early have already been rewarded. Crooks has seen action in four games this season, including three starts.

“It means everything to me,” said Crooks, “that’s something I’ve always strived for. As a younger player, I wanted to be a collegiate player that had a lot of impact on the team so to be able to do that as a freshman means the world to me since it’s always been a dream of mine. It’s a great opportunity.”

Crooks has received starts in three SEC matches this season: at Tennessee, at home against Mississippi State, and at No. 17 Texas A&M. All three contests went to overtime with the Crimson Tide coming out on top against Tennessee and Mississippi State through late golden goals and settling for a draw against the Aggies.

“I think I was probably the most nervous I had ever been in my life,” Crooks said. “I knew I had to be a big player in both of those games just because I’m the last defender, so if something happens that’s on me. I was more excited than nervous, but it was crazy. I honestly just could’ve cried both games when we won.”

Crooks was far from a bystander in the Crimson Tide’s wins. Crooks was forced to make 14 saves over the three games, with five coming against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs attacked from variety of angles, from corner kicks, free kicks, long throws, and breakaways, desperate at times to find a way through Alabama’s No. 1.

Her performance quickly made a huge impression on the man who placed his faith in her from the start.

“She was awesome, right? Here’s a freshman, playing in her third game. She had huge saves throughout the game,” Hart said, detailing each of the big stops Crooks had throughout the overtime win against Mississippi State. “She’s saved our [rear] and allowed us the opportunity to go for the win.”

While the competition for game time is tight in every position for the Alabama soccer team, being a field player offers more spaces and therefore more opportunities. For the three goalkeepers on Alabama’s roster all aiming for one spot, chances are far rarer.

“Obviously all three of us are super competitive, we all three want that starting spot but at the same time, no matter who gets that spot, we’re all supportive of each other,” Crooks said. “We all have some sort of little family with each other so whenever Wes announces who’s starting, we’re happy for that other person. We’re not taking it personal at all, you can’t really do that when it comes to soccer, or any sport really. We come back after that and we’re still the same, we’re really good friends and competitive with each other.

"It’s all in good fun.”

The season is far from over for Crooks, and her career is just beginning. As the freshman continues to impress and improve, she's insuring Hart that the future of the program is indeed in safe hands.