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Claire Howard needs a nickname.

How about “The Laundress”? As in, producer of clean sheets.

Maria Carrillo’s senior goalkeeper has blanked opponents 11 times in 19 games this season for the 17-2 Pumas. Her goals against average is tops in the North Bay League. On a team loaded with offensive firepower, it’s Howard who wears one of the captain’s armbands, who directs traffic in the back and who is the last line of defense against anyone seeking to score.

She is a quintessential goalkeeper: Imposing, tough, loud and anything but timid.

When asked during a team exercise what she brings to the team that is unique, Pumas head coach Debra LaPrath said Howard’s answer was “concentrated crazy.”

“She’s definitely the best goalkeeper I’ve had in 19 years,” LaPrath said.

Then why did Howard play just one half of games at the beginning of her high school career and not take over full-time duties until a few games into her junior year? LaPrath says she was honoring upperclassmen who put in the time to get first dibs.

Howard didn’t complain. But it became undeniable that she was the player who deserved the full-time job.

“Claire could have taken over the job as a freshman. Easily,” LaPrath said. “Claire was so dominant.”

“She is team first,” she said. “It disappointed her personally. Her and I would have those conversations but she would never show that to the team.”

Being a goalkeeper can be a weird assignment. On a team like Maria Carrillo, winner of the last four North Coast Section tournaments, getting scored on is rare. Heck, having an opponent get a shot off is rare. A keeper’s chance to shine — or fail spectacularly — can be mere moments in an 80-minute contest.

So can you put just anybody in the net?

No way, say Howard’s teammates, some of whom she has played with on club teams for years. A keeper can be effective despite rarely touching the ball. They direct the defense, give order to chaos and encourage the back line.

“I’ve played with a few other goalkeepers and I come back to Claire and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve missed you,’ ” said central defender Ali King. “She tells me what she wants. She’s super clear.”

There is a certain amount of bossiness that comes with being keeper. Goalies can usually see the play unfolding better than a defender who is concentrating on making a tackle.

They are usually barking instructions. At a recent practice, Howard’s voice often rose above the rest.

“She is one of the biggest personalities that we have,” LaPrath said.

I asked why, pre-high school, Howard made the switch from field player to goalkeeper.

“The opportunity to be a hero in a certain game,” she said. “I love knowing that people have to beat me to get it in.”

But when she does get beaten, which is rare, it’s lonely.

There is a certain cruelty to soccer — a game that sends a beaten keeper into net to retrieve the ball that just sailed past them.

When the Pumas lost to Northern Highlands High on an east coast trip in September, it was her first loss in a Carrillo uniform.

“I was very, very upset,” she said. “I was proud. It took us to have to go to New Jersey to lose. But I gave up three goals in that game — people were able to beat me three times.”

And then it happened again.

Archrival Montgomery beat Carrillo 1-0 on the Pumas’ home field on Sept. 15.

“I think that game was the first time we ever got shut out,” she said.

“When their crowd stormed the field, I just fell to my knees and started crying. I kind of let the team down.”

But her teammates tell a different story. Howard is the glue back there, the rock on which the rest of the team is built.

“When Claire is in goal, our whole team has so much confidence because she always comes out with these spectacular saves,” said senior Maddy Gonzalez, the two-time All-Empire Player of the Year. “She is such a smart keeper, too, so she often makes saves look super easy.”

Opposing coaches credit Howard as a key piece of Carrillo’s stellar defense — a defense so good that it can almost put a keeper at a disadvantage.

“There’s probably not a lot for Claire to do, but one moment or one counter attack, if you are not sharp or you get caught ... sleeping, they can tie those games or get a loss,” said Casa Grande head coach Vinnie Cortezzo. “It’s really a mental thing for a goalkeeper.”

Howard says she stays in the game by giving instruction to the defenders in front of her and doing play by play in her head. Whatever she does, it’s working, said Montgomery head coach Pat McDonald.

“First you have to get through the back line and then you have to get by Claire. It’s not easy to do,” he said. “It’s a tough position to play, but she’s the perfect person to play it.”

Howard, who is headed to the University of Montana in the fall to play soccer and likely study human health and performance, still has a job to do in the green and gold.

Playoff season is here. The NCS seeding committee is scheduled to meet Sunday to assign games in the girls soccer bracket.

Going out a four-time section champ would do just fine.

Howard, the laundress responsible for so many clean sheets, might play in the back, but she wants to finish out front.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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