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Curtis is behind Merrimack’s success

Curtis is behind Merrimack’s success

When Nicole Curtis (inset) allows a goal during practice — and it is a rare occurrence — a brief celebration often ensues among her teammates on the Merrimack women’s soccer team.

It may sound odd at first.

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But it’s an accomplishment that very few Warrior foes have been able to experience this season.

In 12 starts, covering 1,120:80 minutes, the 5-foot-8 senior keeper from Billerica has yielded 13 total goals (1.04 goals against average).

Curtis’s season has been headlined by her 11-save effort in a 2-1 Northeast-10 win over American International, which was ranked eighth in Division 2.

With Curtis anchoring the back, Merrimack entered the weekend at 7-3-2 (5-2-2, NE-10) and in position to make its 29th straight appearance in the conference tourney.

“We knew they were going to be a really tough team to play,” Curtis said of the AIC matchup. “This was going to be the end of their season and the real start of ours. That win over AIC is the game that’s going to kick-start our season.”

Curtis, who entered last season with just four career appearances in goal, started all 20 games and led Merrimack to the NE-10 semifinals.

“The last half of her junior year, we suffered a rash of injuries and that’s where she became the kid keeping us in the game with a string of shutouts,” said 30-year Merrimack coach Gabe Mejail .
“Going into her junior year, she hadn’t played much and there was a question mark. But this year, there was no question she’d be a premier player.”

Curtis said that she focused on not making any mistakes, and she challenged herself.

“This year, I needed to not make mistakes but also make saves people don’t expect you to make. You need to be a hero when your teammates don’t expect you to be. This year, I mentally stepped it up with personal goals, like what saves I planned to make.”

She had struggled with high balls, off corner kicks or crosses. But now, she is making the more difficult saves, thanks to her work with Karen Guilmet , the team’s new goalie coach, “She’s inspired and motivated me more than ever,” Curtis said. “I feel like I want to impress her, because I care so much about her opinion.”

Senior back Jackie Sullivan of North Andover is the anchor on defense, but with her marking the opponent’s top scorer, Curtis makes the defensive calls.

“I have awesome teammates because they tell me, ‘If I’m doing something wrong, yell at me,’ ” Curtis said. “They give me an easy out to do that. Half the time I don’t have to say anything, but when I do, they’re receptive.”

When the Merrimack offense has stalled, Curtis has come through. She preserved a 0-0 double-overtime draw against Le Moyne with three saves. The Warriors own four one-goal wins.

“Part of Nicole’s job is to pick us up when we have an off day,” Mejail said. “She’s always been a very good goalkeeper athletically, but just more of her own confidence has grown so much. I don’t know if she knows she’s this good, but she is. That’s the biggest difference between her at the beginning of last year and this year.”

Bill McKenna honored with bust at Brandeis

A bronze bust of Brandeis University’s first All-American football player, Salem’s Bill McKenna, was unveiled last Saturday at the university’s Gosman Sports and Convocation Center.

It was sculpted by McKenna’s close friend and fellow Brandeis football Hall of Famer Dick Baldacci of Swampscott, who took part in the ceremony.

McKenna and Baldacci — a former art director at Swampscott High — were captains at Brandeis, which fielded a varsity team from 1951 to 1959.

The attendees on Homecoming Weekend included more than 20 former Brandeis football players, the McKenna family, Brandeis president Fred Lawrence and university athletic director Sheryl Souza. Jimmy Stehlin, longtime football coach at Newburyport High and a Little All-American quarterback at Brandeis, also spoke and a letter from Revere native and former Brandeis assistant coach Irv Heller praising McKenna was read to the audience.

McKenna, a Salem High graduate who died last year at age 79, was a star end at Brandeis and for the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. He was a retired chief geophysicist for the Texaco Corporation’s office in Calgary.

McKenna remained close to Judges head coach Benny Friedman (who died in 1982) and the Benny Friedman Endowed Scholarship Fund at Brandeis is supported through contributions in McKenna’s name. “He was big brother to many, a friend to anyone he met, loyal in the extreme to all and an irreplaceable companion to everyone,’’ said the master of ceremonies, former Brandeis captain Mike Uhlberg, a lifelong friend.

Bassist and composer George Koller, his friend from Calgary, played two of McKenna’s favorite songs — one of the most touching moments of Saturday’s tribute. The 1957 football squad was inducted that evening into the university’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

Here and there

Kayla Austin , a senior at Framingham State, scored a pair of goals to help the Rams beat MCLA, 4-1, and stay atop the MASCAC standings. The Winchester High grad has seven goals and eight assists, which is tied for a team-leading 22 points. . . .

Junior tennis player Melissa Flynn helped Bridgewater State to a 9-0 victory over Plymouth State, clinching the No. 1 seed in the Little East championship. Flynn won her doubles match with partner Jackie McGuirk , and also won her singles set.

Anthony Gulizia can be reached at anthony.gulizia@globe.com.

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