A spot kick 12 yards from the goal — just the shooter and the goalkeeper locked in a battle of wits and athleticism — can, and often does, determine who hoists a trophy and who goes home.
In the past 10 girls high school soccer seasons in the state of Washington, nine state championship matches — as well as 14 semifinals — have been decided by penalty shootouts, across all classifications.
Just last season, King’s beat Cascade-Leavenworth 8-7 on penalty kicks for the 1A state title after 80 minutes of regulation and two five-minute golden-goal extra-time periods produced a 1-1 draw.
Area teams typically don’t begin working on penalty kicks in earnest until the postseason rolls around, especially since conferences stopped carrying league matches into shootouts.
Of course, teams must have someone ready to take a penalty kick in any game if there’s a foul in the penalty box, but those one-off spot kicks aren’t nearly as pressurized as a postseason shootout.
The importance of shootouts — and the skills and attributes to be successful in those cauldrons of tension — becomes apparent very quickly once the calendar turns to November.
From the perspectives of three likely penalty takers, the goalkeeper and the head coach of the 3A Snohomish Panthers, here are some insights into how one team prepares for penalty shootouts, a plan that was put to good use when Snohomish beat Shorewood in a nine-round shootout Saturday for the 3A District title.
Snohomish sophomore Bree Nichols and juniors Ravyn Mummey and Mackenzie Green likely would be among the first penalty takers if the Panthers find themselves in a shootout this postseason.
Each player said that any time she’s placed the ball down 12 yards from goal, be it with her club team or with Snohomish, she’s felt confident she could beat the goalkeeper.
“I believe confidence has everything to do with it,” said Mummey, the daughter of Everett High School girls soccer coach and Lynnwood High School boys soccer coach Pablo Mummey. “Confidence is key, 100 percent. You have to believe in yourself, and skill does come into it, but I believe that confidence is most important.”
Green and Nichols said they approach the ball the same way every time they take a penalty, with the intent to place the ball in a predetermined spot, regardless of what the goalkeeper shows them.
“I’m going where I’m going no matter what,” Nichols said. “And if I place it right, the goalkeeper shouldn’t be able to save it even if she dives the right way.”
“I definitely don’t look at where I’m shooting, I just look straight at the goalkeeper,” Green said. “Typically they dive to the right, because that is most people’s strong side. But I’m just lining up how I always practice.”
Mummey is the most apt of the three to vary her placement.
“I like to mix it up, and I practice shooting to both sides of the goal,” she said. “Whatever I’m most confident with in the moment, I’ll go with. It’s not really about reading the keeper for me.”
In that moment of truth before their run-up to the ball, all three players admitted there are some nerves.
“I feel pressure,” Green said, “but I take a deep breath to calm my nerves and believe in myself.”
Snohomish freshman Cheyenne Rodgers spent most of her first scholastic season as a forward for the Panthers until senior goalkeeper Elle Everett broke her ankle in practice early in October.
Rodgers has years of experience as a goalkeeper at the youth and club levels, so it was a natural fit for her to replace Everett in net.
The Panthers are 8-0-0 in Rodgers’ tenure as the starting goalkeeper, and head to the 3A state tournament with her between the posts.
“It’s definitely been different,” Rodgers said of her midseason shift to goalkeeper. “It’s a position I’ve been in before but wasn’t expecting to be in this season because Elle is a super-amazing goalkeeper. But it’s been a fun experience, and it’s good for my mental game.”
Prior to Saturday’s 3A district championship game victory over Shorewood, the only penalty shootout Rodgers had faced as a goalie was a state quarterfinal with her club team several years ago.
Rodgers saved three of the Thunderbirds’ nine penalty kicks Saturday.
“I want to stare into the shooter’s eyes and maybe see which way they’re going,” Rodgers said. “If they’re looking a certain way, sometimes they know (what I’m thinking) and they’ll go the other way. I’m stronger diving to one side, so I kind of stand off-center in the goal, showing them more of that side, and make them go to my strong side.”
Snohomish coach April VanAssche said Rodgers is one of the best athletes on the Panthers’ roster, and she counts on that ability to come into play in a potential state-tournament shootout, along with the guidance that’s been passed along by Rodgers’ injured predecessor.
“Elle has been great with (helping me),” Rodgers said. “She’s told me some of the stuff that she’s done with PKs, and most of it is that you just kind of have to guess.”
When it comes to penalty shootouts, VanAssche is a realist.
“When we’ve talked to our goalkeeper, we’ve prepared her in that she knows that she’s not expected to save any, and if you do, you’re a hero. There’s a lot less pressure on a goalkeeper than a shooter in a free-kick situation,” said VanAssche, whose daughter, Gracie, is a junior forward for the Panthers.
“With our shooters, we mostly tell them not to think about it too much and make sure that we’re supporting everyone, whether they make it or miss. There’s only so much you can say. Most of it is on them.”
There are some buttons VanAssche can push when a shootout becomes inevitable.
Against Shorewood on Saturday, she made a substitution with 35 seconds remaining in the second extra-time period to get a preferred penalty taker back on the field. Only the 11 players on the field at the end of the second extra-time period are eligible to take penalties.
If, as in the case of the Jackson-Redmond shootout during the 4A Wes-King district semifinal, a winner hasn’t been declared after all 11 players have attempted a penalty, the lineup starts again from the beginning.
When setting the order of penalty takers, VanAssche tends to slot in the shooters she has the most confidence in first and fifth. Most shootouts are decided in five rounds, but the Panthers had to go nine shooters deep against Shorewood, with senior center back Maileena Dicken slotting home the winning penalty, just as she did in a district elimination game against Squalicum in 2017.
“We’d like to start off strong and be able to put it away when it’s all on the line,” VanAssche said.
When setting her lineup for penalty kicks, VanAssche says she relies on her knowledge of her players’ confidence and temperament, as well as statistics kept from penalty shootouts in practice.
“We try to go with girls with confidence and consistency,” she said. “There’s some decision-making with regards to mental toughness, maturity levels and all that stuff, and it doesn’t necessarily depend on what grades they’re in, but how they’ve carried themselves in those situations.”
As much as prep soccer coaches may gripe about the unrealistic expectation of building an attack in the allotted five-minute extra-time periods and whether or not it’s fair to decide state championships via shootouts, the format seems to be here to stay.
Washington Interscholastic Activities Association spokesman Casey Johnson said the organization “hasn’t heard any complaints relayed to this office regarding the overtime format for playoff soccer, and no alternative format has been proposed by our membership.”
“With 80 minutes to play the regular game and 10 more minutes in the extra times, when shootouts do come into play, it’s probably the most fair way to decide things,” VanAssche said. “As heart-aching as it is to get through as a coach and parent, the process of going through PKs is such a great teachable lesson for these high school athletes. The stress that these players go through, and the successes and failures that come from it, they aren’t easy, but it’s something they can build (on for) their futures.
“From that aspect, I think it’s kind of cool.”