LANCASTER, PA - Franklin & Marshall College soccer coach Steve O'Day had an opening for a goalkeeper this offseason.That it's been filled in spectacular fashion is not because of O'Day's recruiting brilliance. His program and school were recruited by the new goalie, not the other way around.
Robyn Jones spent the last two years as a starting keeper on half-scholarship at Division I Rutgers.
In 2003, as a freshman, Jones helped the Scarlet Knights reach the second round of the NCAA tournament, compiling an 0.92 goals-against average.
Last season the team wasn't quite as good but Jones was better, with an 0.82 goals-against and shutouts of national power Santa Clara and eventual NCAA champion Notre Dame, the only game all year in which the Irish failed to score.
"She really is a national-class goalkeeper,'' O'Day said.
Now she's at F&M, where she is, uh, not on scholarship. No athletes are at Division III schools.
"I was on half-scholarship there, and here, I had to take out a loan,'' Jones said Wednesday.
She said that when the folks at Rutgers found out she was thinking about leaving, they offered more scholarship money.
So you're thinking: Is this kid nuts?
"A lot of people have wondered that,'' Jones admitted. "Money really wasn't an issue for me.''
It was for mom and dad, of course. They were foremost among those questioning their daughter's sanity when she decided to transfer here.
"They're a lot more on board now that they've seen the school, where I'm living here and everything,'' Jones said.
Jones attended a small private high school in New Jersey, the Pennington School. Rutgers' student body is about 90 times the size of Pennington's and 20 times the size of F&Ms.
Although she spent two years at Rutgers' sprawling campus and the soccer experience was fine, Jones never managed to feel at home there.
"In high school, everybody cared about you as a person,'' Jones said. "At Rutgers, professors would say, 'Don't ask if I remember you, because I won't.' "
Jones chose F&M because she has some personal connections to the school. She e-mailed O'Day last spring, and sort of walked him through the steps required to make the transfer happen within NCAA rules. O'Day couldn't communicate with Jones without receiving approval from Rutgers' athletic department, for example.
"I was impressed with how methodical and professional she was about the whole thing,'' O'Day said. "It was like a quick tutorial for me.''
A junior, Jones is already experienced at the highest level of soccer she'll see in college. Rather than the awful break this could have been for the two freshman keepers O'Day did recruit - Erin Roy and Miriam Marcus - it's turned out to be a giant positive.
Jones was of course the starter when F&M's season opened Friday, but O'Day said that, "I don't see her playing every minute of every game.''
Jones has also been a leader, which matters a lot because no matter how good a freshman could be, she couldn't replace the intangible contributions of last year's goalie, Melissa Ruff, a four-year starter and team captain.
"An instant leader,'' O'Day said of Jones. "She's totally embraced that role with the new players, and they [Roy and Marcus] have raised their level as a result.''
A stocky, powerfully-built kid, Jones is not a goalkeeper from Central Casting. She is a pure athlete, though. She was a four-year starter in goal for high school soccer teams that reached the state final four times, winning it twice.
She also played basketball and softball at Pennington, and did winter track her senior year, specializing in that classic combination of sprints and ... shot put.
Jones has been bugging O'Day about leaving the net once in a while and playing in the field. She'd like to play softball at F&M this spring.
Not a couch potato.
"What sets her apart is her athleticism,'' O'Day said. "I'm convinced she could excel at any sport.''
Still, from big-time D-1 on scholarship to D-3 in the middle of a successful college career? Imagine, for example, a Penn State football player starting as a freshman and sophomore, and then transferring to F&M because he felt like a number in Happy Valley.
"This came out of nowhere,'' O'Day admitted. "It might be a little more common in women's soccer than in big-time football, but not much.''
One wonders if it doesn't have something to do with the difference between men and women, men seeing a team as a means to an end and women seeing it as a family.
"No question, there are differences between male and female athletes,'' O'Day said. "That family atmosphere is something we very much try to cultivate.''
"Actually, the team at Rutgers was very close,'' Jones said, "but I didn't have as much of a voice as I will probably have here.''
On the other hand, she added that, "A Penn State football player can think about the NFL. Women don't have that opportunity to play professionally.''
Jones still wants to play professionally some day, perhaps before or during a career as a counselor and coach, if pro soccer is then an option for women. It isn't now, at least in America, with the folding of the Women's United Soccer Association two years ago.
For now, though, there is a new and happy family.
"I felt really welcome here right away,'' Jones said. "I knew right away this setting was better for me as a person.
"As far as how good the soccer can be, that really depends on how much you put into it.''