Southwestern Switch Up: 'This Goalie Actually Does Play Middie'

The release felt good.

That’s what Blake Sitterly first recalled about the shot he heaved from a foot behind Southwestern’s restraining line late in the fourth quarter up 10-9 under the lights at Illinois Wesleyan’s Tucci Stadium. Sitterly noticed IWU pressed out in a 10-man ride, which left the opposite goal unguarded. He let it fly. 

“It looked like it was gonna bounce to the left and kick wide,” Sitterly said. 

Instead, it hit the top-left corner. The man-down goalie goal proved the difference in the Pirates’ 11-10 win last Friday. It was the Division III program’s first victory over an NCAA tournament team in the 11 years of competition since it transitioned from club status. 

“Does this goalie want to play middie or something?” one commenter on Instagram asked in reference to the highlight that received widespread attention on social media. 

“This goalie actually does play middie,” Sitterly replied. 

Based on the way he played, it would be hard to tell that Sitterly — a 6-foot-2, 170-pound sophomore midfielder from Houston — volunteered to step in between the pipes after a sequence of events left Southwestern in need of a goalie. He made 47 saves and allowed 35 goals in four games (8.75 GAA) earlier this month. His save percentage was greater than 50 percent in every game besides a 10-7 loss to Carthage, during which he made eight saves. That was his first start. 

Sitterly made 14 saves and allowed just four goals in a 13-4 win over the Milwaukee School of Engineering in his second start. He was named the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Week for the performance. An image of Sitterly playing midfield accompanied the press release.

“He exceeded my expectations by a wide margin,” said Southwestern assistant coach Mike Markland, who played goalie at Division II Pfeiffer. “It’s not like you’re changing from midfield to LSM. There’s no other change like that.”

“He looked the part, which is kind of weird because guys that aren’t goalies [usually] don’t look natural whatsoever.”

Apart from a Shootout For Soldiers game in the summer of 2016 and about three games in the seventh grade when he filled in after his team’s starter got injured, Sitterly was a lot more accustomed to scoring goals than stopping them. When he gets his hands free, Markland said, there’s no one on the Pirates’ team that can “ping it harder” than Sitterly on a step-down shot. 

But in a year defined by equal parts adversity and adaptability, few stories better epitomize the efforts to eke out a season after the last one was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic than Sitterly’s selfless move to one of the least envied positions on the field. 

“I was just doing what I could to help our team get out on the field,” he said. 

In February, two of Southwestern’s goalies left the program within a week of each other for personal reasons. The other two on their roster had to quarantine for two weeks starting in early March because of contact tracing protocols. A pair of two-game road trips to Wisconsin and Illinois loomed. 

“We were in a bind,” Markland said. “We were going to forego essentially four games or needed to find somebody to step up.” 

Southwestern, the oldest university in Texas and one of only two NCAA lacrosse teams in the Lone Star State, had already experienced more than its fair share of disappointment before this roadblock. The Pirates took a 12-hour bus ride to Birmingham, Alabama, to play Birmingham-Southern, only to find out once they got there that the game was canceled because of a positive COVID-19 test. 

Their game against Rhodes College in Memphis was canceled the day before they were scheduled to leave. The winter storm that brought sub-zero temperatures and wreaked havoc on Texas’ electrical grid shut the lacrosse team down for a whole week in February. 

During the two-and-a-half-hour drive home on the first weekend of March, Sitterly spent most of the time deliberating on a situation he called “straight uncertainty.” He knew what he needed to do. At a stoplight, he texted Bill Bowman, Southwestern’s head coach, that he was willing to play goalie. Sitterly reached out to his teammates, including Southwestern all-time points leader Zac Asbury, that following Monday once he got back to Southwestern’s campus — 45 minutes north of Austin in Georgetown, Texas — and gathered extra goalie gear from the Pirates’ locker room. 

“Come out and shoot on me if ya’ll got the time,” Sitterly wrote.  

Southwestern had just one day of practice before the team left for Wisconsin. In that limited time, Markland stressed seeing the ball and told Sitterly, who was the 2019 MVP of his high school swim team, to utilize his athleticism. Markland offered some footwork tweaks, but his first impressions of the player he called a “no-nonsense guy” were overwhelmingly positive. 

“He looked the part, which is kind of weird because guys that aren’t goalies [usually] don’t look natural whatsoever,” Markland said.

Sitterly’s teammates were also surprised. 

“Oh my God, Blake is legit,” Southwestern faceoff specialist Hudson Bearden thought after watching him warm up. 

Still, Markland tried to take any extra pressure off Sitterly by joking with him that he didn’t have super high expectations. He would have been happy with a 30-percent save percentage. 

From the moment Sitterly made his first save against Carthage, he got a jolt of confidence. Sure, there were some clearing passes that he spiked straight into the turf, but he soon ironed those out. In the second quarter after Bearden lost a faceoff, he looked back to see Sitterly make a point-blank save in transition. 

“I didn’t really have to worry about him in the cage after that,” Bearden said. “He wasn’t scared. He was just ready to play. He’s the kind of guy who provides for his team, no matter what.” 

“It hurts in the moment,” Sitterly told his teammates whenever asked about soaking shots. “But the fact that the ball’s not behind you just makes it feel so much better.” 

Sitterly credited Southwestern’s defense for rallying in front of him, especially in the second half against Illinois Wesleyan. The Spartans scored 32 goals in their first game this year. The Pirates held them to 10. Bearden won 22 of 25 faceoffs and collected 17 ground balls. The win felt like the first time Southwestern got close to the potential it showcased in 2020 when it raced out to a 4-0 start with a 70-28 scoring margin. 


Markland said the half-second pause after Sitterly’s 60-yard goal before the sideline exploded felt like an eternity. Sitterly made a stick-side high save with 28 seconds to play to seal the win. The Pirates got to storm the field twice because of a last-second penalty. 

The entire team sprinted to get its goalie both times. 

“It’s been a long year,” Markland said. “That was obviously the big payoff moment.” 

Southwestern lost its next contest at Benedictine 11-10, in part from what Markland described as an emotional hangover. On Friday, the Pirates play at Colorado College, which dropped its first game of 2021 on Sunday against Salisbury. Soutwestern fell to Colorado College 20-5 in their first meeting Feb. 27, when the Pirates were missing six starters. 

The game Friday will be the first time Southwestern has their full roster available in nearly two months. The plan is to have freshman Drew Alvardo, who like Sitterly attended Langham Creek High School, resume his starting duties. 

Sitterly will transition back to the midfield. 

He struggled to recount his feelings after the historic win against Illinois Wesleyan because there was so much going through his head at that moment. But besides the bruises, he won’t soon forget the biggest lesson he learned from his foray inside the crease. 

“You gotta live for the big moments and be willing to step up and do the stuff that people don’t want to do,” Sitterly said. “That’s how you make a difference.”