As a yellow-shirted referee whistles, play stops. Defenders hurry to grab their masks and line up shoulder-to-shoulder in goal, gathering in a tight formation around the goalkeeper. Soon enough, an opposing player smacks the ball toward the front of the defensive box, and a shot comes whizzing at the goalie and the defensive unit.
This is a penalty corner, a routine play for field hockey’s defensive units, who are tasked with defusing countless offensive threats like this at any given game.
At the center of the defense stands the most crucial player: the goalkeeper. In this game, she’s an unquestioned leader who barks orders to organize the team and occupies the last line of defense between the offense and the net.
“It’s definitely a unique position, but it can almost be viewed as an entirely different sport. If you make one mistake or you don’t make a solid decision, those moments result in goals,” head coach Caroline Nelson-Nichols said.
For Columbia field hockey, there’s one athlete who’s stood in goal all season: Alexa Conomikes, a junior who moved into the starting role for the first time this year.
Conomikes transitioned into starting goalie with ease, making 95 saves in 15 games. She records 6.33 saves per game on average, the second-best mark in the Ivy League and the ninth-best mark in the nation.
“Alexa really anchors our backfield. … I’ve played under three goalies in my time here, and I think what makes Alexa really special is that she has a relentless amount of confidence,” senior back Kelly McCarthy, another fundamental piece of the Lions’ defensive core, said.
Conomikes’ fearless attitude is a central part of what makes her such a competitive goalie, a position that relies on both physical and mental fortitude.
Nelson-Nichols also praised Conomikes’ approach, saying that she takes every penalty corner and shootout situation with the same mindset of “I’m stopping every single one.”
“She’ll say, ‘Come at me,’ or ‘Rip a shot at me,’ and I think that desire to get better and to push the team is what makes her special,” McCarthy said.
However, this goalkeeper’s journey to success hasn’t been without significant challenges. The night before Conomikes was set to depart for Columbia on her first-year report day, she learned that the surgery and rehab she had for a previous hamstring injury had not done their job.
“My bags were packed to go to Columbia and I found out that I was going to be out for the entirety of my freshman season. … Having worked so hard, that was heartbreaking,” Conomikes remarked, having spent the whole of her first year with her goalie pads “in the plastic wrapper.”
Conomikes persevered and learned to contribute to her team off the field, doing her best to offer constant moral support throughout her first season.
During her sophomore year, Conomikes served in a backup role, working under Katie Dempsey, CC ’19, who started all 17 games in net and recorded 109 saves. According to Conomikes, forming a partnership with Dempsey was vital to her development as a goalie and player.
After Dempsey graduated, Conomikes’ starting spot wasn’t guaranteed, and the goalkeeper worked on every facet of her game in the off-season in order to bolster her skill set.
“She put a lot of work in over the summer to get herself ready and really earned the starting position this year. If she hadn’t done that individual work, I don’t think she would’ve been in a place to be as top-performing as she is this year,” said Nelson-Nichols, who informed Conomikes that she earned the starting role the day of the team’s first game this fall.
“That was a huge moment for me. … It’s what you work [toward] for so long, and it was very, very exciting,” Conomikes said.
The goalie hasn’t wasted her opportunity at any point this fall. In just her second game, she recorded a season-high 14 saves against No. 7 Iowa, whose high-powered offense ranks eighth in the country with an average of 3.18 goals per game.
Conomikes’ presence stretches beyond the field. Her energy boosts her team’s morale in high-pressure moments, like when the Light Blue was entering shootouts against Ivy League rival Cornell.
“The rest of the team, especially the field players, were a little frustrated that we were going into a penalty shootout, and Alexa ripped her helmet off, came off the field and was like, ‘Let’s go, we’re gonna win this right here,’” McCarthy recalled.
Conomikes’ leadership has also been part of a program-wide shift in Columbia field hockey, which Nelson-Nichols called a “cohesive, camaraderie-oriented group.”
“Our senior and junior classes were really the catalysts for that movement,” Nelson-Nichols mentioned when discussing the “family” her team has built in the past few seasons.
The Lions’ efforts to reshape its culture began to take shape on the field this season when the group defeated ranked opponents for the first time in program history, knocking off No. 22 Boston University and No. 24 Maine.
“We’ve put a lot of work into what it means to play for Columbia field hockey. This year specifically, we wrote out a list of team standards that’s taped on our door, and when we see them every day, we know why we’re here,” Conomikes stated.
For Conomikes, that commitment from the team remains the focus as she begins to wrap up a successful first season as a goalkeeper and looks toward her senior year.
“Where the program stands now, I think that everyone’s bought into what we are and where we’re going.”