Two years ago, I was down at Valley Fields, setting up to broadcast a Marquette women's soccer game for Marquette Radio, when I struck up a conversation with team manager Aleks Vidakovich.
"They're going to have a hard time replacing Boyer next year," I said idly, referring to then-senior goalkeeper Laura Boyer.
Statistically, Boyer was one of the best keepers in the history of the program. Her career goals-against average of 0.82 is best all time. She ranks second in career wins, winning percentage, minutes, and shutouts, and third in career saves. A tough act to follow, to be sure.
Yet Aleks shook his head at my apparently naïve assumption. "Kulla's better," he replied.
Enter Natalie Kulla, at the time a freshman red-shirting out the final year of Boyer's tenure in the net.
Physically, Kulla was superior, standing 6-0 to Boyer's 5-7. But what Boyer lacked in height she more than made up for in heart. I was a bit skeptical, but deferred at the moment to someone who knew far more about soccer than I.
Last season, Kulla's first as an eligible freshman, started with her splitting time alongside transfer Chelsey Turner, though she eventually won the keeper spot outright and recorded a 9-4-2 record with six shutouts in 17 games played. Solid numbers, but nothing eye-popping.
Then, on November 7, Marquette played for a spot in the Big East Championship game against tournament host Notre Dame, who was undefeated and the unanimous No. 1 team in the country.
One stat effectively summed up Notre Dame's dominance going into that match: they had trailed for a total of two minutes all season. (Ironically enough, to Marquette when the two teams played several weeks earlier.)
The Golden Eagles seemed overmatched right from the beginning. They were without their top scorer, and their opponent, the eventual National Runner-Up, was moving the ball with surgical precision.
On offense, the Irish seemed to circle MU's goal box like sharks at a shipwreck. And ten minutes into the game, they started to smell blood:
A strike from 25 yards out redirected off an MU defender right to the feet of Irish forward Melissa Henderson, who fired a point-blank shot that Kulla dove to smother right in from of the goal line.
Marquette was able to clear for mere seconds before Notre Dame was on the attack again. The Irish barraged the box with lofting shots, hoping to score off a redirect. But Kulla seemed one step ahead of every strike, working around the traffic at the net to punch ball after ball out of harm's way.
The Irish set up another chance in the 25th minute, as Michelle Weisenhoffer fired a shot on goal that was redirected at the top of the box by teammate Lauren Fowlks. Kulla had already moved to snag the initial shot, and – in a display of pure reaction time – was able to reverse pivot and knock the ball away from the net with her left foot.
Then, in the 27th minute, Notre Dame used a give-and-go on a two-on-one breakaway to notch the game's first goal. Until that point, Marquette's freshman keeper had managed to keep an offense with three All-Americans at bay, even though the ball had barely left Marquette's defensive zone for the last 17 minutes.
She ended the game, a 2-0 loss, with a career-high nine saves and this writer's eternal respect.
Suffice it to say, there will be no shortage of jaw-dropping plays down at Valley Fields with Natalie Kulla roaming the net for the next three years.
Which player performance are you most hotly anticipating? Join the discussion on our message board.