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Callum Irving: College soccer's best keeper is Kentucky's last line of defense

Kentucky goal tender Callum Irving on the home field in Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 20, 2015.
Kentucky goal tender Callum Irving on the home field in Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 20, 2015. Lexington Herald-Leader

Two islands, separated by a sea of grass, represent the difference between hero and villain.

Those two islands can be lonely places on a soccer pitch.

Under the lights, before a crowd of roaring fans and surrounded by a rhythm of movement, the gatekeepers of those islands wait patiently, eyeing every pass of the ball, zoned in to every flutter of action.

"You kind of lose yourself in the moment," University of Kentucky goalkeeper Callum Irving said. "You're out of your own head, just playing and trying to react so that when I see a guy running at me, it's all subconscious."

It's a task that Irving relishes.

The 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior is an enigma. He remains relatively unknown despite his accolades; the consequence of playing a sport overshadowed by UK basketball and football.

As a result, it might come as a surprise to many that Irving is the best college goalkeeper in the country, according to TopDrawerSoccer.com. He enters the 2015 season as the reigning Conference USA Player of the Year, Defensive MVP and Golden Glove Award winner.

It's safe to assume that his days of remaining unknown are dwindling.

'A terrier'

Callum Irving's story begins 2,500 miles from Kentucky's Wendell and Vickie Bell Soccer Complex, in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The youngest of four children, Irving grew up a fighter from the start. Small but scrappy, he was bright with a reputation as being bullheaded. "He's always been like that from day one," Robert Irving said of his son. "Bright, super intense, really good sense of humor, he had to battle for his spaces because of his three older siblings, but he fits in really well."

Irving's defining battle was one over which he had no control: his lack of size. The top goalkeepers in the English Premier League stand around 6-foot-5. Irving entered UK at 6-foot-1, weighing a slender 150 pounds.

Irving began playing soccer at age 4. He was so small as a child that people wondered why this scrawny kid was even trying out for select teams.

"He would try out for a select team and not make it," his father said. "And be told, 'Well, you're short.' He was like 5-foot-8 and there were always taller goalkeepers. I had a couple parents and coaches come up to me and ask, 'Why does he keep playing if he keeps on getting shut down all the time?'"

What the other parents didn't know was that Irving was raised to cope. He played soccer with his older brother, learning along the way the nuances of harnessing persistence over raw power.

"My wife would come and watch the games," Robert said. "And he would get knocked over, cry for a couple seconds and just get up and keep going. People used to refer to him as a terrier: throw the ball, bring it back, throw the ball, bring it back."

Irving liked all sports, but he always wanted to play soccer. His love for the sport grew exponentially when he turned 12. He joined the Total Soccer Systems Academy in Richmond, British Columbia, and it was there that he began to take soccer seriously.

After summer trips with his team to Belgium and Holland exposed Irving to the world of international soccer, he returned to Vancouver with a new-found respect for the game.

"My dad accompanied me and we got to see professional soccer games," Irving said. "We saw Holland versus Germany and that was an amazing experience. ... Just being able to see these other teams, see these kids over in Europe and telling myself I want to play with them. It was a little stepping-stone for me."

Still, his lack of size plagued him. He was never selected for the state team, which bothered him because all his friends were chosen. The rejection drove Irving to work harder.

Irving's father, a former soccer goalkeeper and hockey goalie himself, became Callum's rock. The two would practice kicking, technique and distribution, and studied the professionals.

"For me, it was a lot of trying to get the technical aspects of the game down," Callum Irving said. "Rather than the physical because I didn't have much of the physical going on for me. It was really just trying to be as technically sound as possible so I can try and compete with the bigger kids."

Stay and fight

The life of a goalkeeper is tough. Most teams keep up to three on a roster. Only one plays while the other two fight to remain relevant. At the highest levels, you either play the whole game or you don't play at all.

"Mentally it becomes a really tough thing to deal with," Irving's father said.

You have to truly love the game because "you're on your own," he added.

Callum faced that reality in 2012, his first year at UK — and almost his last. Forced to wait his turn behind goalkeeper Jack Van Arsdale, Irving struggled. Family and friends noticed. Some thought he wasn't getting the playing time he deserved.

"I really wanted to play. I came there expecting to play, but I had the wrong attitude," Irving said.

He was torn between staying the course at UK or leaving to pursue a spot with the Canadian National Team. Irving had earned his first call-up to the national team program in 2011 and was viewed by some as the country's keeper of the future.

Irving told his father he wanted to "stay at Kentucky and fight."

"It was a pretty rough first season for Callum," UK Coach Johan Cedergren said. "But I think again, the reason as to why he's the best goalkeeper in college, and is our team captain, is that there's not a challenge out there that Callum won't respond to and try to overcome."

That became the reason why Cedergren ultimately gave the nod to Irving over Van Arsdale during Irving's sophomore season.

"There were some things that Callum could do that few goalkeepers could do in college in general." Cedergren said. "We felt that it was time for Callum to take over. He needed a confidence boost to make sure he understood we really knew how good he could be for us."

That confidence boost came in 2013 against Old Dominion, when Irving received an unexpected start.

"I was super excited," he said. "Because ODU was a really good team at the time. Playing away, it was one of the first conference games, so I was happy I was able to play."

UK ended up winning 2-1 in extra time after "five to seven unbelievable saves that Callum made to keep us in that game and to win the game for us," Cedergren said.

Unknown to Irving, the process of ushering him into the starting role had begun prior to his sophomore year.

"It was a process that started the year before when he got benched," Cedergren said. "He just kept working and he worked in the weight room, he worked in practice and just slowly but surely won the spot. By the time we got to that ODU game he was the clear No. 1 goalkeeper and he showed that in the game."

He's started ever since.

Irving's career was not saved by one start. He credits that to his two best friends, teammate Kristoffer Tollefsen and former teammate Isak Krogstad.

"They've been hugely instrumental keeping me motivated and keeping my mental aspect focused, on track and pushing me to be better," Irving said. "I owe a lot to those two. I don't know if I would still be at the program, I would have transferred, if it hadn't been for those guys."

A program with purpose

Three straight postseason berths for the Wildcats later, Irving has cemented his reputation.

He finished 2014 with a 0.77 goals-against average, the fourth-best in UK history, while his career 0.98 goals-against average ranks third. He is one of 30 athletes — and only two goalkeepers — on the watch list for the Hermann Trophy, which goes to college soccer's top player.

Many college programs boast elite keepers. But Irving was voted the nation's best in a recent poll of coaches.

What it is about Irving that separates him from the pack?

"The combination of stopping shots before they go in, and at the same time starting our attack with his accurate distribution both with his hands and feet," Cedergren said. "He's extremely good with his feet, extremely fast and agile. He can come out of the box and get the balls before the opposite forward tracks them down."

"He's just so natural, he's got great hands and he comes out and cuts the angle. He's worked really hard with assistant coach (David) Casper in proving that and he just keeps getting better and better."

Serving as Kentucky's last line of defense is the role for which Irving — now a sturdy 190 pounds — was made.

"The key for me is I came in wanting those moments," Irving said. "Wanting that individual success to take over games and win games for the team."

Irving says he no longer recognizes the UK program that recruited him, such growth has taken place since 2011.

"It's a much more seasoned, professional program, from top to bottom. We have a head coach that cares about the team, puts in the work; we have assistant coaches who work around the clock putting in the work for the squad and with recruiting, we have guys that want to go professional."

The extra work players now put in, compared to a few years ago, is night and day.

"There is a real purpose to the program now," Irving said. "Before, they were trying to find their way a little bit, but now I think we've found it and hopefully we'll have a great season this year and keep building upon that."

The challenge now is staying focused on the season ahead. The chance to fulfill a lifelong dream — playing professionally — awaits. "I think the opportunities are going to be there," he said.

Irving's final season at UK includes his favorite game — Sept. 8 at Louisville ("I cannot wait to go there and beat them," he said) — another shot at a conference title and potential NCAA Tournament glory.

Can Irving lead UK to all three? Nobody doubts him anymore.

"People were amazed that he kept trying," Robert Irving said. "That's just the kind of person he is."

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