First-year goalkeeper Aiden Rushenas was not always planning on playing for the Dalhousie University Tigers men’s soccer team. But he’s shown Tigers fans plenty of reason to be glad he did.
After a season of training with the North Toronto Nitros, a club in the semi-professional League1 Ontario, the Torontonian set his sights on the starting job at Dal when he heard veteran Dal keeper, Ben Grondin, would not return after the COVID-19 season.
Rushenas, who said he models his game after European professional keepers Joe Hart and David de Gea, didn’t let the noise get to him.
“Commentators in the first couple of games said there were big shoes to fill, since [Grondin] was one of the best goalkeepers if not the best [in the conference]. But in the back of my head, I just wanted to play my game,” he said. “I’m confident in my ability to deliver.”
A busy season between the sticks
Rushenas earned the starting duties in training camp and, in part due to a season-ending injury to returning keeper, Connor Aalders, went on to play every minute this season.
While the Tigers finished eighth in the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) and missed the playoffs, Rushenas put together an elite season accompanied by some stellar performances. He finished third in the conference with a 0.827 save percentage while making the most saves, 81, of anyone in the AUS. That’s 17 more than the next closest keeper with the second-most in the AUS. He was the only keeper to play in all 12 conference games.
“He was just lights out from the opening day of training camp and he performed at a very high level, very consistently,” said Tigers head coach Alan Jazic of his young keeper.
Rushenas credits his quick adjustment to the AUS to the leadership of veteran teammates and his time training with the Nitros back in Ontario, where he has grown accustomed to older, more experienced opposition. These, he said, better enabled him to break into the AUS.
“You can’t be scared of older players or anything like that, because you are always playing the same game at the same level. You just have to compete,” said Rushenas.
“He’s kept us in every game”
By far, Rushenas’s signature game in his rookie campaign was his performance against the Saint Francis Xavier University (StFX) X-Men on Oct. 22. He faced 17 shots on net without conceding any goals. This effort was critical in earning the Tigers a point, as the match ended in a 0-0 draw.
“I just had that confidence in my head that I would save every shot,” he said of the X-Men game. “You have to play like nothing will get past you. So as the shots just kept coming and coming, I thought I was going to save all of them. And that’s what happened.”
Jazic, when discussing the StFX game, was quick to note these heroics were not a one-time occurrence, even if the stats in that particular match came out spectacularly.
“He’s kept us in every game. That’s what great keepers do,” he said. “There have been multiple times where he’s made a game-saving save for us and we [took the ball] down the other end after that save to score. He has given us an opportunity to win every single game, and that’s all you can ask him for, especially as a rookie.”
While putting up one of the best individual performances by any goalkeeper this season, Rushenas’s 17-save night was just one of a string of solid performances. He put up double-digit save totals thrice this season, all coming in the final four games of the campaign.
Although Dal couldn’t squeeze out enough points in a tough final stretch to qualify for the postseason, Rushenas played well enough to be nominated for the AUS men’s soccer rookie of the year award, according to Jazic. A player from Cape Breton University beat Rushenas for the award.
As great as that is, Rushenas said it stings to miss out on a championship run. But the lack of a playoff berth is a motivator as Dal prepares to compete next season.
“It’s the nature of the game,” Rushenas said. “The goalkeeper is just one position. You can do your job, but it’s a team sport at the end of the day. You have to look out for your teammates and always work to motivate them.”