Isabelle Perese started playing field hockey in her freshman year of high school. She doesn’t really remember how she ended up the goalie.
“I feel like whenever I try something new, I like to make it as difficult on myself as possible,” Perese said. “I don’t know why I do that, it often backfires.”
It appears that she chose the right position. Perese, now a senior at Miami University, has had an illustrious career. In 77 career games over four years, she’s allowed just 104 goals. She’s saved nearly three quarters of all the shots she’s seen. In 29% of her career starts, she’s recorded a shutout.
Every year Perese has been here, Miami has won both the regular season and tournament championships of the Mid-American Conference. Perese, the team’s last line of defense, has had to be extraordinarily consistent and clutch for her team to have such a reign of dominance.
This year has been her best season yet. She holds the NCAA’s third-highest save percentage at 81.3%, and she’s fifth-best in the country with a .991 goals against average. Perese has always been excellent, but this year she might be the best.
“I feel good, having four years under my belt stopping college shots,” Perese said. “Also, we got a new assistant coach this year, and he kind of focuses on the goalies. He brought a different level of competition and kind of shook things up. He’s made me really want to compete with myself and try to be better every day. I think he had a major impact on it.”
In field hockey, the goalie has a pretty tough job. The net Perese protects is seven feet tall and 12 feet wide. If you’ve never felt a field hockey ball, just trust me: they are heavy and solid.
And wouldn’t it be scary to be in Perese’s position? Standing back in that net alone. The hopes of the entire team resting on your shoulders.
“It can feel a little isolating at times,” Perese said. “I mean, during the game, I always try to keep super focused and not get distracted. Our defense is really good though, so there’s time’s where I’m not getting a ton of action. Sometimes I have to be like ‘Okay, stop.’ I can't let my mind wander.”
When a goalie messes up, everyone notices.
“When multiple goals happen you have to reset super quickly,” Perese said. “You have to forget about it. We say ‘goldfish mentality.’”
But for goalies, there are good feelings too.
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“Every first shot, if I can make a good save, my nerves just disappear,” Perese said. “It’s like ‘I'm good now’”
It doesn’t take long watching a Miami field hockey game to realize that Perese is a leader on the field. She directs traffic with her stick and calls out to teammates who can’t see the whole field like she can.
“I don’t think leading from a vocal standpoint comes super naturally to me,” Perese said. “I try to lead more by example, just working hard and hoping others follow. But being a goalie, it’s a really vocal position. I’m super loud and obnoxious on the field. My teammates are probably like ‘shut up, like just be quiet.’ But I feel like as I’ve gotten older, [Head Coach Iñako Puzo] has given me the confidence to have more of a voice on the team. I’m trying to step into that role even if it’s not always, like, super comfortable.”
Nearly four years into her college career, Perese has seen and done a lot. Some people say that the grind of being a student athlete isn’t worth it. Perese is not one of those people.
“I’ve always been someone who has to be busy all the time,” she said. “It’s held me super accountable to academics and everything. I don’t feel like I really missed out on anything either. It’s just given so much back to me. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I feel like it’s such a unique experience that not that many people get to do. So hopefully when I’m old and gray I get to tell my grandchildren that I played a division I sport. And maybe they’ll think it’s cool?”
After she graduates, Perese plans to become an elementary school special education teacher. She might coach field hockey too.
“I do think about that,” she said. “The teacher-coach is just such a pairing. I’m thinking that I’ll be done with school at like 4 p.m. So what am I gonna do?”
She just doesn’t know where she wants to go yet.
“I mean, I’m from Columbus, and then I went to school in Ohio. So ideally I’d like to go somewhere else and just see a different part of the country,” Perese said. “But my whole family’s in Columbus. I don’t know if I'd be able to leave that.”
Whenever her field hockey career comes to an end, Perese will miss it. Some parts of the college field hockey experience are nearly impossible to replicate.
“I’m always thinking of ways to compete, like what intramural can I play?” she said. “But I don’t think I can replicate the team anywhere. I can’t imagine anything like that.”
But Perese still has another season of eligibility remaining after this one due to the pandemic year. She’s still not sure if she’s going to take it.
“I feel like it'd be pretty hard to walk away from the game if I still have more to give,” Perese said.
Perese doesn’t know what’s in store for her over the next twelve months, but she does know how she’ll be approaching every game of this week’s NCAA tournament.
“You just never know when it could be your last game. That’s something we always talk about. Play every game like it’s your last,” she said
She seems more worried about how her parents will handle her final game, whenever it comes.
“It’s been a part of my life and my family’s lives for so long. My parents never miss a game, they’re my biggest supporter,”
Before Perese has to think about any of that though, her RedHawks have the chance to make a name for themselves, with the NCAA tournament starting this week.
Last year, the RedHawks made it to the sweet-sixteen where they lost in a heartbreaking last-minute comeback to No. 3 Michigan.
“It was terrible,” Perese said. “We think about it all the time. We're never gonna forget that feeling, and we're gonna do our best to never let that happen again.”
Perese and the ’Hawks start the tournament slate off on Wednesday, Nov. 9 against Rider in Evanston, Ill. If they win that, they’ll move on to play No. 3 Northwestern on Friday.