COLUMBIA — Zach Clem remembers his junior year of high school well. It was the first year he went to prom, it was the first year he had a job and it was the first year he played competitive soccer.
Clem, a walk-on sophomore who has been the starting goalie for the Columbia College Men’s soccer team most of the season, has been playing competitive soccer for only five years. It all started five months before his junior year at Fort Zumwalt West High School when, while sitting in his sophomore math class, Clem’s freshman baseball coach come up to him and asked, “Do you want to play soccer?”
“I was confused,” Clem said. “I wondered if he felt sorry for me because I didn’t get too much playing time or something.”
That wasn’t the reason. Baseball coach Brad Fischer, who is also the head soccer coach and a basketball assistant for the school, liked Clem’s size and the ability he showed on the baseball diamond and basketball court. He would watch Clem’s range as he ran for fly balls and his soft hands as he shot the basketball, thinking what could be if Clem played soccer. Yet, what Fisher loved the most was Clem’s attitude.
“Zach had such a great attitude towards whatever he did,” Fischer said, “that I thought with his physical attributes and mental toughness that he could do well in goal.”
After thinking it over, Clem decided to give it a shot. He convinced himself that even if it didn’t work out, the extra conditioning in the fall would help his basketball in the winter. Clem started the summer before his junior year playing, training for the season ahead. He went to bunch of soccer camps and played on a summer league team. He would get in goal and just stop the ball, not worrying about position or technique.
“I looked at not playing my entire life as a sort of a blessing, instead of a negative,” Clem said.
Clem, unlike all other goalies, was just learning about the game so he had no real bad habits to fix. He would show up to a camp or game and ask “What do you want me to do, where do I need to be, when do I need to come out?” Instead of not charging a ball or being timid on his line, Clem would just play and not think about making mistakes because “he knew no better.”
“Zach is extremely smart and intelligent so he learned quick,” Fischer said. “He is very competitive and has an old-school toughness within him, not letting himself give up.”
Clem made the roster his junior year as the backup goalie on the varsity squad. He continued to play basketball and baseball, but soon soccer took over most of his time as he really enjoyed playing. That summer his league team was “really bad” and so he got a lot of practice against different shots, formations, and players. Clem started to learn what angles to take on a breakaway or when to come out of his goal. Each time Clem would talk to a new coach or play against a new team he would learn something new about the game.
“I learned the right way the first time around, which kept me from picking up bad habits,” Clem said.
Clem was the named the starter his senior year and played well. According to Fischer, Clem improved tremendously and led the team with 13 shutouts. The team made the playoffs and finished with one of the best records in school history. He began talking to college coaches and by the end of the season he was in contact with the coaches at Columbia College. He did not play baseball that spring and at the end of his high school career decided he wanted to continue playing soccer. Clem had good enough grades, ending with a 3.98 gpa and 24 hours of college credit, that even though he wasn’t offered an athletic scholarship at Columbia College, he was given an academic scholarship. He would walk on to the soccer team and try to earn a spot the only way he knew how: hard work.
“I came to Columbia mainly because of the academics, but I wanted to continue playing soccer because I enjoyed it and the opportunity was there,” Clem said.
Clem began his freshman year at Columbia College as the backup, working under the instruction of Cougars goalkeeper coach Matt Stacey. Stacey continued teaching and working with Clem on his technique and decision making. The two went through drills of scooping up the soccer ball instead of trapping it, or recognizing the angles and utilizing Clem’s range. Clem made up for his lack of game experience and knowledge with hard work and determination, according to Stacey.
“His development over the last two years is really amazing if you think he has been in this sport for just five years now, never mind actually playing for only really three,” Stacey said.
Since the start of this season, Clem has started in goal for the Cougars eight out of its nine games this season. He is still learning his position and even the game itself, evidence being in the 17 goals Clem has allowed this season. A week ago Clem made a mental mistake with the set up of his defense on a free kick, resulting in a goal. It is these instances and others, according to Stacey, that will teach Clem the game better and force him to work on his mental side of the game.
“Practice and experience is what he needs,” Stacey said, “He has the size, range and ability, so now he just needs to learn and play the game. He is devoted to getting better.”
The season as been a challenge for the 1-8 Cougars and for Clem himself. He said this has been the hardest year of his life in any sport.
“I need to work hard to be able to make the saves we need, the saves that will win us games.” Clem said, “I know I can do it, I need do it for us to win.”