Playing high school and club “all at once” is a joy for the Hawks’ junior star

by Katherine Dunn

River Hill goalkeeper Caroline Duffy never hesitated to join the Hawks for Howard County’s shortened soccer season that began earlier this month. Some players elected to focus on their club teams, but Duffy couldn’t wait to do both.

“When everything shuts down, you want nothing more than to be playing as much soccer as you can, so to get the opportunity to do it all at once, I’ll take all I can get,” she said with a laugh.

River Hill junior goalkeeper Caroline Duffy is emerging as one of the nation’s best high school net minders and she cannot get enough of the game she loves.

Juggling five days of high school soccer plus three days of club practice and club games on the weekends hasn’t overwhelmed Duffy. She said she’s fortunate her coaches at the Maryland United 2003 ECNL have been flexible. Still, she goes to club practice at least twice a week.

Duffy loves playing for River Hill too much to miss this mini-season even though, as a junior, she’ll return in the fall. Some players did skip it and others have been nagged by injuries as the Hawks are 3-2, but Duffy said she looks at this season the same as any other.

“Obviously, we’re not going to have the experience of playoffs and going to states, but at the same time, I love the competitiveness of each and every game… I think Howard County soccer has, for the most part, stayed the same. It’s stayed highly competitive, highly physical and it’s stayed a whole lot of fun,” said Duffy, whose Hawks travel to Centennial Tuesday at 7:00 p.m.

Duffy comes from a soccer family. Both parents played college soccer, Lynda (Lohsen) Duffy at Loyola and Patrick Duffy, a Centennial graduate, at Tufts. Her sisters, Caitlin and Mia, also play.

She started with clinic soccer at 4 or 5 and once she became a goalie at 11, her passion for the game and the position helped her quickly excel.

Steve Campbell, technical director of Maryland United, said the 5-foot-10 Duffy is one of the best goalkeepers in the nation in her age group.

“The obvious things right now when you look at Caroline, she’s got the physical presence and height, so she lends well to being a goalkeeper, but what sets her apart is her mentality. She’s fearless, but also she’s got this resiliency. As a goalkeeper you know you’re going to get scored on, but it doesn’t affect her. She can bounce right back. She doesn’t get fazed. If she makes a mistake, she can move on really quickly and she’s extremely driven. She’s worked hard to improve her craft,” said Campbell.

Although Duffy has played only two full seasons with the Hawks, The Howard County Times named her to its Girls Soccer All-Decade Team in December. Her second-team selection ranks her as one of the top four goalkeepers in the soccer-rich county during that stretch.

“Even as a freshman, I knew she was going to be something special,” River Hill coach Brian Song said. “Her presence, just being on the field, makes the game much easier for the defensive third of the field, because she’s literally directing and guiding. She’s really confident from the back and helping the younger players out there who need a lot of guidance. We only have four seniors this year and only two of them start, so we have a very young team.”

In her River Hill career, Duffy has 24 shutouts. Her freshman year, she allowed just five goals as the Hawks won the Class 2A state championship, the 13th title in program history.

In the final against Walkersville, Duffy said, she only touched the ball three or four times, but a highlight-reel save in the waning seconds preserved a 1-0 lead and secured the championship.

“In the last 30 seconds, they get a fast break down the field and they make a cross. It hits off one of my players. I get a touch to it just enough to get it to hit the post and go back out. At that point, the game was over and we had won. I think that was just very special for me especially as a freshman. Experiencing that with my sister (Caitlin) as well and getting to be an impact in that game was very special.”

In travel soccer, Duffy played mostly on the field, spending a little time in the goal as coaches rotated keepers before the girls were old enough to specialize. She thought she had the talent for it but never thought about playing in the goal full time.

“I have always been pretty tall, so it wasn’t all that difficult for me and I enjoyed it,” said Duffy. “Then, my U-13 year — I was 11 because I played up a year — they asked at tryouts, ‘Is anybody here to try out for goalkeeper?’ I had no idea why — and to this day, I still don’t know — my hand went up in the air and I was over training with the goalkeepers. From then, I had a passion for it and I loved it from that point on.”

For Duffy, whom Song said is mature beyond her 16 years, the position had a certain appeal that grew the more she learned.

“I loved how it was a very specialized position,” she said, “and you had to be good in all aspects of athleticism. When it came to foot skills as well, because that’s a big part of the game now, using the goalkeeper to play with your feet. Your communication. I had to learn how to be a leader on the team and I think that was very valuable. Also, just working to become better with your hand-eye coordination and all your positioning. It’s a very complex position and a very important one that has kept me wanting to learn all the different aspects of it.”

Her friend and Hawks teammate Sam Smedley said Duffy’s passion for the game is what makes her so good at it.

“A lot of people get attracted to soccer, but she’s one of those people who really does have a passion for soccer,” Smedley said, “and she makes sacrifices for soccer. She loves the game and she always is out there to play hard. She’s just a confident person. It’s always been that way growing up. Even when she was in the midfield, she was such a presence.”

Although the COVID-19 interruptions in recruiting haven’t helped, Duffy said she has a short list. Aspiring to play professionally after college, she’s interested in Power Five conference teams, but with a 4.56 cumulative GPA and an interest in science, she has stressed academics in her search and has looked at some Ivy League programs too.

Song has no doubt Duffy will succeed in whichever college program she picks.

“In my tenure there’s no one who even comes close to her,” he said.