Oct. 15, 2009
It's not unusual for a collegiate athlete to excel in their sport up through college. It is, however, a bit unusual for that same athlete to pick up a different sport with a seamless transition and continue to stand out. Welcome to the world of UMass Boston Women's Soccer goalkeeper Jessica Penta (Revere, MA).
For the past three years, Penta has played in a women's football league. Don't be fooled, it's not a European soccer league. We're talking hard hitting, in your face, do anything for a first down, American style football. Her team; the Boston Militia. Her position; line backer. And her mentality; hit anything with a pulse.
Penta got her first taste of the gridiron grind when she played two season of Pop-Warner football in the sixth and seventh grade. She fit right in with her four brothers during back yard touch games, and her love for the sport continued to grow.
"Football is a passion of mine. Growing up with all of my brothers playing definitely had an influence on my decision to give it a try. I love sports in general, but football is where I have found that I can excel. It's my thing. Once I was in high school it was tough for me to not try out for the squad because I was too small, but I always enjoyed playing soccer during the fall season," said Penta.
After playing four seasons on the Revere High School varsity girl's soccer team, Penta was contacted by UMass Boston's Head Woman's Soccer Coach, Amy Zombeck, to see if she had any interest in continuing her soccer career with the Beacons. Zombeck had just completed her first season with the program and was looking for solid athletes to build a foundation around.
With Penta on board, things looked a little brighter for the Beacons future. Unfortunately, the 2006 results were just as dim but she did everything she could in net to keep the team in games. The rookie keeper made 272 which not only was tops in the Little East Conference, it also led the nation among D-III goalkeepers. She played in all 18 matches, averaging 15.11 saves a match to rank second overall in the country in saves per game. The 1589:09 minutes she played that season stands as a program record.
"It wasn't always fun but that didn't mean I ever stopped competing," said Penta. "I always approach any athletic contest with the same mentality, and that is to go in with a lot of confidence and believe in yourself and your abilities."
During the final minutes of her freshman campaign in a game against Keene State, Penta suffered a serious foot injury, fracturing a bone in her right ankle. The break was only a temporary setback because five months later, she was back out on the field competing; only this time it was a football field.
The Independent Women's Football League (IWFL) features 42 teams, including the Boston Militia. Not only has Penta been on the Militia's active roster for three consecutive seasons, she's been named to the IWFL East All-Star team every year. Following her first season, she was named the teams Rookie of the Year after leading the Militia in total tackles, a feat which she'd accomplish again in her second season.
In 2009, Penta registered five touchdowns including one defensive TD on a return run after an interception. The Militia finished the season with a 9-1 record, with its only loss coming in the coming in the Eastern Conference Championship game against the D.C. Divas.
"We're still pretty upset about the defeat, but I know that my teammates and I will be using the loss as motivation during the off-season. We'll be hungry to get back out there and play hard next spring."
During the rise of her pigskin career, the Beacons keeper decided to step back from the soccer scene and focus on football and her academics. Although the IWFL may be in its off-season, Penta is very much back in-season for the UMass Women's Soccer team after a two year hiatus from the sport.
"I was on campus working out and ran into Coach Zombeck during the summer pre-season sessions. She asked if I was interested in coming back to play which definitely piqued my interest a bit. After a phone call from Kristi Morales, a senior tri-captain that I played with my first year, I decided to give it go," said Penta.
The Women's Soccer team is off to its best start in program history. After 12 matches they own an impressive 9-2-1 mark, 3-0-1 in LEC play. The Beacons are currently on a nine match unbeaten streak and have already notched four shutouts this season. Penta currently owns a 1.60 goals against average and has been splitting time in net with fellow keeper, junior Michelle Cain. For many goalies, this spilt of time could cause some internal conflict but for Penta and the Beacons it's the exact opposite.
"It's really nice to have someone else there with me to go through practices and drills. My first year with the team, I was the only goalie so having someone else around makes things much more manageable at all times. We both know what it feels like to give up a goal or make a great save, and we're both going to be there for each other no matter what. I guess that's just the mentality of a goalie, the position demands a different mental aspect that you just don't expect field players to understand. That's just part of being a keeper."
It appears the old firing range days on the UMass Boston backfield are through. In only a three year span, the Beacons have gone from allowing an average of 35.1 shots a game during Penta's freshman season down to a remarkable 8.75 shots per game this year.
"It's just amazing to be a part of something like this," said Penta. "To see what we were back then, to where the program is now is pretty astounding. It's almost unimaginable to think about where things were three years ago as compared to now. My first year, going into the big conference games, the thinking was go out and try to keep it somewhat respectable. Now, we've been going into every match thinking that if we play our game, we have a great chance at winning."
Be it on the football field or the soccer pitch, one thing is certain, Penta is going to be out there giving it 100 percent. Thankfully for the Beacons, she's back in between the pipes stopping shots. Luckily for her opponents, she's stopping the shots and not delivering them, at least not during this season.