LITCHFIELD >> Wamogo graduates Jessica Binkowski and Emma Williams started playing soccer together when they were eight.
They starred together on the Warrior field.
They played premiere soccer together for the Litchfield-based Northwest Rovers.
This year, they played as freshmen for the North Atlantic Conference’s Castleton State College (Castleton, VT).
Both girls were All-BL and All-State players for Wamogo, Binkowski as the all-star goalkeeper, Williams the leading scorer.
“We’d joke and say, ‘What if we went to college together,'” laughs Binkowski.
Now, after a season in which the Spartans were runners-up in the 10-team NAC, the girls are roommates.
They grew used to leading Wamogo to new standards in girls soccer. The Warriors qualified for their first state tournament berths when the girls were juniors, did it again when they were seniors.
They beat cross-town rival Litchfield for the first time as juniors. Binkowski made 24 saves. Williams scored the winning goal.
Binkowski finished with 1,031 saves in her high school career.
They headed for Division III Castleton State August 18.
“Every girl on that team was a star on their high school team,” commented one parent early in the season.
The Spartans won three straight NAC championships prior to Binkowski’s and Williams’ arrival.
Williams faced three returning forwards in her striker’s slot.
Binkowski was up against a returning sophomore and two other freshman goalkeepers.
“There were 11 freshmen,” said Binkowski. “We all stuck together and outnumbered the upperclassmen, so it wasn’t as bad as it might have been if there were just two of us.”
Nevertheless, anyone who thinks D-III sports are easy hasn’t been there.
“We had a strength and conditioning coach who just ran us and ran us,” Binkowski laughs.
Williams didn’t start, but played in 16 of the Spartans’ 24 games.
Binkowski kept amazing herself by moving up the pre-season ladder.
“We all knew (Coach Chris Chapelaine) wasn’t going to keep all (four of the goaltenders),” she said. “He cut the sophomore. Then one of the freshmen quit when she wasn’t playing enough. In our first scrimmage, he said I was starting. I started from then on.”
Before the regular season began, Binkowski dislocated her right knee – an injury that first occurred when she was in eighth grade.
She’s scheduled for surgery January 7, but, with the help of a brace, she thrived for the Spartans.
First, she experienced her own transition from high school to college.
“College kids are quicker and more physical,” Binkowski said.
Castleton’s first game, a 2-1 win over New England College (Henniker, NH) was Binkowski’s initiation.
“It was one of the most physical games of the year,” she said. “One of their players got a card for taking me out. I ended up with bruises all over my body.”
It’s easy to believe that goaltenders, protected by the rules, aren’t involved in physical contact. The truth is, many of the best keepers initiate the contact.
“If they take it to one of my defenders, I’m going to definitely take it to them,” says Binkowski.
Still, it wasn’t all battles.
Castleton State hosted a pre-season tournament, including Simmons College (Boston, MA). Litchfield High School graduate and former Northern Rover teammate Emily Andrulis was a freshman starter for the Sharks.
“That was exciting,” grins Binkowski of the reunion, a 2-1 Simmons win.
Castleton State was 13-9-2 overall, 7-1-1 in the NAC.
The lone conference loss, 2-1, was to traditional Spartan rival Colby-Sawyer College (New London, NH). The tie, 1-1, came against the University of Maine-Farmington.
When the NAC Tournament came around, Castleton dominated Maine-Farmington 4-2 in the quarterfinals, then fell 1-0 in the championship game at Colby-Sawyer.
“The close ones stick in your mind,” said Binkowski. “When we beat teams 7-0, I probably touched the ball twice.”
With 96 saves for the season, Binkowski’s most memorable game was still to come.
Following the NACs, the Spartans moved on to the ECAC Tournament, facing Brandeis University in the quarterfinals.
In freezing temperatures, Castleton played catchup most of the game, tying the game 1-1 with four minutes left in regulation, then 2-2 with 24 seconds left.
The Judges dominated in overtime, but couldn’t score, thanks to seven saves by Binkowski.
Then came the shootout. Binkowski made two more saves. The Spartans won the game 3-2 (5-4 PKs).
Despite the Spartans’ NAC dominance, it was Castleton’s first-ever post-conference win.
Binkowski ended the game with 21 saves, the second most by a D-III keeper in a winning effort in 2013.
She was named the NAC Player of the Week Nov. 4. By year’s end, her efforts against Brandeis made Binkowski Castleton State’s top performer in the Spartans’ “Top-13 of 2013” annual performance reviews.
Binkowski and Williams have lots of playing time ahead.
Castleton’s three starting forwards return, but Williams now has college experience.
Binkowski? After one stellar season with a knee brace, it’s fun to think what she might do without it.