Picture this: 90 yards of green grass right in front of you as you look on, trying to figure out what is going on down the field.
If the other team gains possession, there would only be seconds for you to come out and try to defend the attack before it develops or await the potential shot and try to defend that instead.
“Do I come out or stay back?”
One second you are having a cohesive thought or leading your defenders where to go, the next second a ball might be flying toward you while moving close to 70 miles-per-hour.
In a sport like soccer, there are countless scenarios that could happen throughout in an opposing attacking scenario.
It makes the job of goalkeeping always challenging and occasionally impossible.
Assistant coach Tim Wassell has been there and done that in this realm of soccer, being a goalkeeper himself while also currently taking up the goalkeepers’ coach role and the recruiting coordinator of this Penn State program.
He will be the first to admit the madness in goalkeeping.
“Why keeper? It goes against every survival instinct known to man, right,” Wassell said. “Like you’re going to jump in front of a ball that’s going 80 miles an hour and dive at people’s feet.”
“I think we’re all a little off, for sure.”
Wassell is a goalkeeper lifer and has been since his younger days. An early spark of interest set him on this trail of success.
“It was kind of out of necessity,” Wassell said. “Then I went back there and was kind of excited when people cheered when I touched the ball and you just kind of grow into it.”
“Also I didn’t really like to run, so it was kind of the best way to do it.”
A successful stint at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School saw him continue his playing career at East Stroudsburg University and even made a Final Four appearance. However, a change of major saw him coming back home to Penn State Altoona, where everything jump-started for Wassell.
It was all somewhat of a coincidence, though, as he actually was not even going to continue playing once he got back to Altoona.
“I’m really thankful that some people that I knew from my younger days encouraged me to play and then kind of naturally springboard that into a coaching role,” Wassell said.
He was helping out on the men’s and women’s team in 2006, while also having a finance career on the side. Then, he was struck with a huge surprise heading into the 2007 season.
Two days before the season began, the women’s soccer head coach informed Wassell that he was going to retire and asked if Wassell was ready to take on a new role.
“I was like ‘Ready for what? Ready to run a couple of training sessions?’” Wassell said.
The saving grace was that Wassell has been on the recruiting trail before the season started, and that head start proved to be instrumental for him – then a 24-year-old head coach.
“We kind of just found instant success,” Wassell said. “I think we started 10 freshmen that year and broke every school record.”
And he did. The team went 12-5-1 in the regular season including two demolition of 10 goals of more against Gallaudet and nearby rivals Mount Aloysius.
Wassell then had to prove that the success was not a flash in the pan, and he did that too.
“The following year we went undefeated through the regular season and made the NCAA tournament and I was national finalist for coach of the year at 25,” Wassell said. “The thing that nobody knew was I had no idea what I was doing – I was just trying to kind of piece my way through it.”
The early success made Wassell contemplate his career options, as he was still balancing head coaching and also a finance career.
An opening at Penn State University Park was just the opportunity he needed to push himself over the edge, though.
“I had an opportunity to come up and kind of dip my toe in the water and kind of see what this level was really like,” Wassell said. “After two seasons as a volunteer, I actually had a real decision to make to kind of dive in.”
Wassell’s vast opportunities at different levels also allowed him to craft a very specific acumen and perspective with goalkeeping.
“I think goalkeeping is one of those position probably more so than any of you really got to play the strengths and help goalkeepers really kind of tailor their game to the way we want to play as a team,” Wassell said. “That’s kind of what excites me every day.”
Sarafina Valenti, a senior goalkeeper on the team, can attest to Wassell’s style of trying to fine-tune the keepers on the squad.
“He was adjusting a lot of techniques I had and just broke me out of some bad habits to a point where now I can feel when I’m not going to make a save,” Valenti said.
“He’s really taught us self-correcting on our own and we will say to him and he’s like, ‘Yep, you got it.’ He has the way about just teaching us.”
His vision of perfect goalkeeping also coincidentally aligns with one of the best defenders of all-time in Paolo Maldini – “If I had to make a tackle, then I have already made a mistake.”
“When I look at our goalkeepers, I tell them every game that the best game is if they don’t touch the ball, right?” Wassell said. “I think it’s about being master organizers and communicators and understanding tactically and what we need out of our team defending. If she has to make a really good save, that means somebody probably messed up somewhere along the line.”
Apart from goalkeeping, he is also the recruiting coordinator for Penn State. He aided the team by consistently bringing in top 10 recruiting classes since 2014, with the cherry-on-top with the No. 1 class in 2019 featuring the likes of Kate Wiesner, Cori Dyke and Payton Linnehan.
Wassell gave the credit to head coach Erica Dambach, though, as she was at the core of the culture-building process.
“For me, I think it’s kind of easy to recruit here,” Dambach said. “You come here, you see Jeffrey Field, you see the culture and really, our players are the ones that saw this program.”
Dambach also heaped praise to Wassell in his 10th year with the program for being a huge part of the success.
“I’m fortunate to have three other head coaches on the staff,” Dambach said. “We’re really fortunate to have him and that he’s decided to stay here. I think what kept him here this long is he knows that Penn State can attract the best with a huge part of his work, and I gave him all the credit in the world for all the talent that he’s brought into this program.”
Being the goalkeeper his whole life while also taking on such an important role to the continuous success of the program is not easy for Wassell, but his goalkeeping mindset pushed him through.
“Whether you like it or not, there’s a magnifying glass on us,” Wassell said. “If you’re a forward and you have 10 chances and you make one, you’re a hero; if you’re a goalkeeper and you have 10 opportunities to make game-changing saves, you make nine of them and one goes in, you’re the scapegoat.”
In his mind, it’s always the intensive focus that counts in every situation.
“We recognize that we’re probably going to be in game action for about 90 seconds, and so the mental focus that’s required out of us is really heightened, especially in decision making,” Wassell said. “You look at the modern game and how much we ask our goalkeepers to play with their feet like they’re master decision-makers.”
In the end, as Wassell have done all his coaching career, it is simply to prepare and make his players better.
“How can we equip them to be the best decision-makers they can possibly be so that in those three seconds maybe when they don’t even have time to think about things, they can choose the appropriate action and to have success?”