September 29, 2012
The numbers are as wild as the hair. And, make no mistake, the numbers are pretty wild.
Heading into an important home match Saturday night against No. 8 Notre Dame, UConn goalie Andre Blake carries a four-game shutout streak of 389 minutes, 42 seconds. Fairly impressive until you consider the sophomore from Jamaica set the school record last year with a nine-game streak that lasted 961:32.
"Andre," said Ray Reid, coach of the No. 2 Huskies, "is the best goalie in the nation."
Blake, who has allowed two goals during an 8-0-1 start, has a .909 save percentage and .22 goals against average, second in the nation in both. In starting all 34 games since he stepped foot in Storrs, in fact, Blake has allowed only 12 goals in 3,161 minutes. He has 21 shutouts.
And, man, you could hide all those zeros in that fro of his. You arrive on campus to do a story on Blake's numbers, and who knew some of the numbers would include 1975 Oscar Gamble and vintage Jackson 5?
"My hair is just my hair," Blake said. "It's just there. It just came to me once: Every time I cut it, it grows back. So I'm just going to leave it and let it grow. It just happened."
There is some hirsute logic and maybe a little island existentialism mixed in Blake's words. At 6 feet 4, the Great Wall of Jamaica is a very cool number.
"Great athletic ability," Reid said. " Very good in the air. A leader. Composed. No ego. Easy going. Good student. A super kid. He has played on two very good teams here. He has done an outstanding job. It's not surprising what he has done, not at all."
"For me, nothing is surprising," Blake said. "Every time I touch the pitch I work to get better. I know it was a matter of time to reap what I sow."
Last year, he reaped Big East goalkeeper of the year, the first freshman to win a major conference soccer award. He reaped NSCAA third-team All-American and College Soccer News second-team.
"Honestly, at first I didn't want to go to college," Blake said. "I had the talent. I wanted to play pro. I got a lot of interest. USF, Virginia Commonwealth, Texas A&M. People coming to me and I turned down the offers. There was this one guy, I don't know if it was the way he came across, but all of what he said made sense."
The guy was Paul Harvey, a friend, a man Blake said he looks up to.
"He called me straight," Blake said. "He sat me down, put across a couple of points to me. He made sense. I thought about it and thought, yes, [college] is what I want to do."
Reid said former assistant coach Paul McDonough, who has Jamaican connections, knew of Blake and put UConn on to him.
"Andre was receptive," Reid said. "It was kind of easy."
"UConn came to watch me play," Blake said. "They flew me up for a visit and when I got here, I said this is where I want to be."
Blake, 21, began playing goal in primary school. He played the field, too, leading his team in scoring one season. He played center-forward and midfield through his first two years in high school. It wasn't until he got the call from the U-17 and U-20 national teams that he focused solely on goal as a career path.
"I still play [on the field] with the guys here in the spring and pickup," Blake said. "They like it. They said I have touch."
Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, et al., yes, Jamaica is a sprinter's paradise. No, Blake isn't going to challenge any of them to a race. He's a fan of the 6-5 Bolt, but growing up his guy was 6-5 goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar of Manchester United.
"My parish doesn't produce good runners, we're better soccer players," said Blake, whose hometown May Pen is in the southern parish of Clarendon. He did grow nearly as long and athletic as Bolt.
"Being tall is an advantage, but I was born with a talent," Blake said. "If you're tall and you can't catch, lack judgment or lack confidence, you won't be able to do what you want."
Junior midfielder Colin Bradley said Blake made a one-handed save on the goal line against St. John's the other night that was amazing. Yet the key to Blake's game in a stout defensive system isn't in quantity of saves. It's in qualitative synergy. Working with the four backs is an art form for goalies.
"Being able to communicate and have the respect of the backs, Andre has it," Reid said. "Read the game, give direction, he does it."
"His command of the penalty box, I've never seen anything like it," said Bradley, who's from West Hartford and attended Avon Old Farms. "Anything that comes into the 18-yard box, anytime the ball's in the air, it's his. That puts so much confidence into the team."
UConn, coincidentally, played Notre Dame when Blake made his official recruiting visit and he notched his ninth consecutive shutout in a scoreless tie at Notre Dame last October.
No coincidences this year. Against Notre Dame before a sellout crowd and road games against No. 5 Georgetown and No. 10 Marquette ahead, there is nothing but solid challenges in the next week. A 2011 season of great hopes ended with penalty kicks against Charlotte in the national quarterfinals. Dreams grow anew.
Blake, for his part, remains the cool number. Dreams of being Jamaica's senior national goalie? That will take care of itself, he said. The inevitable pull to turn pro before his senior year?
"There is no decision," Blake said. "I came here saying I'll stay four years and, for now, that's the same."
"We hope so," Reid said. "The difference from field players is goalies can play until their 40s. He could play 20 years. I know his education is very important to his mom and grandmother."
Blake likes Storrs. He wishes he could get into the city more for Jamaican food, but he enjoys the rural tranquility.
"I came from a tough area, but I didn't let that determine where I go," Blake said. "I have good self-control and deny myself certain things if I think it's not best for me. My parents grew me the right way."
He grew his hair, too. Last year, he occasionally played with a modified fro. For now, he says, it'll remain braided in games. If he lets it out this year, like he did at practice this week, he'll cover half the net. Andre Blake might never allow another goal.
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