There can only be one. Just one. But there are two. And it’s odd.
With a trip to the NAIA championship game on the line two goalies will hope to see their name listed among the starters. Both are good. Both are deserving. But both can’t play. One must watch.
For almost any other team in the country this would be that awkward moment when. But it’s not. And it’s because of a unique friendship between two players competing over one spot.
Michelle Wieland and Alexa Douglas not only share a position, but an apartment as well (along with teammates Madeline Arterburn and Brittany Flanagan). They hang out, work on homework together, and do things that any good friends would do, even though they’re about as opposite as it gets.
Douglas is the punctual one. Her closet is color-coordinated and organized almost daily. Wieland’s wardrobe is also organized, just not the same way. She prefers piles and mounds of clothes strewn throughout her room. Douglas is the morning person, and wakes up by 7 a.m. every day. Wieland on the other hand may see the morning first, but rolls out of bed 10 minutes before class.
Socially Douglas is more reserved, preferring to let people get to know her bit-by-bit. Wieland can talk the paint off a battleship and is hard pressed to go 20 feet without striking up a conversation. Their litany of differences is lengthier than a celebrity trial. But while it seems like the duo’s relationship makes for a hit TV series, the ‘odd couple’ caricature of them isn’t entirely accurate.
They don’t fight or argue (which makes for bad television). They share the same sarcastic sense of humor. They're always on their phones and struggle to finish a plate of food. But possibly their biggest distinction is that they’re each other’s biggest fans. Not so common among teammates competing for playing time.
“When I’m on the bench and she makes a great save I’m jumping and screaming,” said Wieland. “For a while people were confused.”
And who could blame them. Teammates fighting over one spot are supposed to poison the other’s breakfast, not make it for them (as Douglas does on occasion). They’re supposed to secretly pray they break an ankle, not a record (something Wieland is on pace to do with her NAIA-best 0.17 goals-against average).
“There’s always that piece of you that wants to play, otherwise you wouldn’t be on the team,” said Wieland. “But I’m happy for her when she’s in.”
And that sentiment isn’t just wordplay to sound like good teammates. They aren’t the disgruntled backups disingenuously cheering for the starter. It’s different. And maybe that’s because there isn’t a starter and there isn’t a backup.
Over the last two years Douglas has started 22 times while Wieland has gotten the nod in 21 games.
“It’s an interesting feeling,” said Douglas about splitting time. “I could be frustrated, but it’s one of my good friends and she’s having an awesome year. I’m happy when she does well.”
And their friendship spills over into the game, as exemplified in one brief, but telling conversation with assistant coach Scott Mocabee before senior day.
Unsure of who the coaching staff wanted between the posts, Wieland approached Mocabee and said, “I don’t know if I’m going to start or not, but I’d like to give it to Alexa.”
And Alexa, a senior, got the call and recorded two saves as the Cougars posted a 5-0 win over San Diego Christian while Wieland gladly watched from the sidelines.
“Michelle comes off like this goofy girl, but she’s a good kid. Most people would say ‘I’m planning on playing,’” said Head Coach Jason Surrell. “With these two I know it’s genuine. They really want the other one to do well. They both want to play, but if the other one gets the time they’re out there rooting for them. It’s the real deal and it’s pretty cool.”
And the results have been cooler.
Behind Wieland and Douglas the Cougars have allowed a preposterously low six goals (Azusa Pacific single season record is seven) and their 0.29 goals-against average is the best in the NAIA, and will be another program record if it stands. The team’s 15 shutouts tie the program’s single-season mark, something the both of them are extremely proud of.
“It’s been awesome. I’m really proud of our team and the way they’ve stepped up,” said Douglas. “I think we’ve been defensively sound despite all of the injuries. We don’t face that many shots.”
“To have given up as few goals as we have is pretty incredible,” said Wieland. “[Allie Stone], who was a big piece last year, was out for most of the season, and different people have been rotating in and out.”
In perhaps the team’s biggest match of the season against Point Loma Nazarene in the GSAC championship game Douglas shined. The senior held the Sea Lions scoreless in 110 minutes to force PKs, an area of concern for the team in recent years.
Before the shootout she spoke to Wieland saying, ‘I just need to save one.’
“The last two times we had gone into PKs we didn’t get the result we wanted,” said Douglas. “I think it motivated me.”
And the motivation worked as the keeper doubled up on her quota; saving two Point Loma tries to give the Cougars the tournament title with a 4-2 edge.
It was one of the many bright spots the two have had this year, and for them it makes it a lot easier to celebrate knowing it’s their friend in the spotlight.
“It’d be a lot harder if I didn’t like her,” said Wieland.
“It would hurt us if we had negative feelings for each other,” said Douglas. “I think we like each other so much that it helps.”
And the two point to their friendship as proof that you can compete against someone while still having a good relationship.
“We were talking about how we wish we had a third goalie so that we could show her the relationship we have,” said Douglas. “It doesn’t need to be negative. You can be competitive and still have a good friendship. You help each other out and cheer for the person that is playing your position…you hope they do well.”
The two of them have that attitude tested on a game-by-game basis. To deal with alternating starts they say it helps having an idea who will be called on going into the match.
“A lot of times we know who’s going to start before it’s announced…based on the scouting reports,” said Wieland.
And as team-first players, they’re always on board with the decision.
“The coaching staff knows what they’re doing. We have full trust in what they say and who they choose.”
Who gets chosen against Lee (Tenn.) on Friday is still a mystery. Douglas has played in every match against them in her career, including a 2-1 win over the Lady Flames in Oregon earlier this year. And Wieland has allowed only two goals all season.
It’s a good decision to have for the coaches and the team. But only one can get the call. Only one can play. And they’re ok with that.