The man they call “Das Boot” covers a lot of ground. Not only do his soaring kicks travel long distances, but so do his runs across the field. Almost every time a free kick is awarded, Das Boot eagerly scampers to the spot, ready to inflict another potent blow toward goal.
Nothing about that scenario sounds strange, that is until you learn Das Boot is a goalkeeper.
Joe Rice has always had a big leg, but this season marks the first time it’s been unleashed all over the pitch. Fairfax High coaches have granted their senior keeper the freedom to break free from his cage, allowing the 6-foot-2 VCU commit to take free kicks from as far up as the opponent’s 40-yard line, sometimes as close as the 20 if the situation is particularly dire.
So far the risk has paid off. Rice has two assists on the season, and he hasn’t surrendered any goals in those occasionally nerve-wracking open net situations.
“Why not let them do what they’re good at?” Fairfax coach Kelly Lusk said. “You’ve got to play to your strengths.”
Rice’s ability to serve dangerous balls into the opponent’s box and stop shots coming toward his own has provided the Rebels a valuable weapon this season. Yet the reason Fairfax (7-2-1) is enjoying its first winning season in years doesn’t fall solely on its standout keeper.
“Our program isn’t just built around Joe because you’ve got to score goals,” Lusk said. “We’ve got this huge weapon in the back, but then we’ve got all these other weapons all over the field.”
The Rebels’ 0.8 goals-against average is impressive, but perhaps more noteworthy is their 19 goals, nearly double their output to this point last season. The emergence of seniors Brandon Bauer and Cayln Clyburn — who both bypassed their high school seasons last year in favor of McLean Academy — has contributed to the improved production. So has a newfound level of depth and balance that prevents opponents from keying on any one player. Ryan Lee currently leads the team with five goals, while a cluster of others are right behind him.
“I think our quality of players is not what every other school has, which is actually our best part. That’s our fighting chance,” said Clyburn, who was finally cleared from two stress fractures in his back right before the season started. “We’re the underdogs in almost all our games this year, so for us to have a big season now, it’s a good feeling.”
Fairfax is only three years removed from an 0-13-1 season that seemed to cement its cellar-dweller status in a Liberty District full of regional contenders. Online archives don’t date back far enough to reveal a winning season, something Lusk hasn’t yet accomplished in her five years at the helm. She can check that goal off the list this year, as the Rebels have just two regular season games remaining before the Conference 6 tournament gets underway next Friday.
While they admit this is a special season, players and coaches get the feeling it’s more than a blip on the radar. Nine seniors graduate this year, but an improving batch of underclassmen at the JV level, combined with a more confident overall mentality, points to the cultivation of a winning mentality.
“From being here all four years, I think it’s the quality of players and the possession,” Rice said. “The group that we have playing works so hard and is more soccer-smart. We didn’t have that before.”
Fairfax currently sits in fourth place behind Langley, Washington-Lee and Yorktown in Conference 6. The addition of Washington-Lee and Yorktown has made the conference tougher than ever this year, but the Rebels feel they’re up to the challenge.
“I think that we’ve really hit our stride at a good time in the season,” Lusk said. “We haven’t corrected all our mistakes, but I think we’ve come a really, really long way. It’s fun to watch them develop and come together as a team and work together, and that’s why I think they have a ton of potential. It’s going to be a fun postseason.”