Aug. 27, 2007
By Anthony Oliva
Courtesy of CSTV.com
Before the 2006 season began, Joe Zimka set a seemingly improbable goal.
"My goal in the beginning of last year was to lead the nation in goals against average," the Northern Illinois goalie said. "The funny thing was that I wasn't even the starter then, so coach thought that was a pretty weird goal for me to set."
Weird maybe, but by season's end that improbable goal was not only achieved, it was surpassed.
Zimka, then a sophomore, took over for senior goalie Matt Corcoran in the eighth game of the year, and immediately his shutouts started to accumulate. Not only did he, in fact, lead the nation in goals against average with a .207 GAA, but he also broke John Putna's 28-year NCAA record for lowest GAA in NCAA history. Putna amassed a .267 GAA in 1978.
Zimka, who only surrendered three goals in 15 games, anchored a Northern Illinois team that finished 15-6-1 and 22nd in the final RPI rankings (best in school history). Not surprisingly, Zimka's also led the nation with a .955 save percentage.
"Joe is great," said Northern Illinois senior defender Steve Algozino. "When he stepped in between the pipes he was incredible for us. He was a big help in getting us to where we wanted to go."
Northern Illinois won both the Mid-American Conference regular season and tournament championships. The Huskies also advanced to the second round in the NCAA tournament powered by a strong team defense that included not only Zimka but rising senior Chris Rufa, a 2006 First Team All-MAC selection, Algozino, a Second Team All-MAC selection and rising junior standout Drew Jeskey.
"When you have a guy like Joe complimenting a very good defense it's one of the better insurance policies you can buy as far as defense goes," Simmons said. "Having a goalkeeper like Joe is the difference from a team with four or five shutouts, to the amount of shutouts we had. Joe gained a lot of confidence in the defense and the defense gained a lot of confidence in him."
Northern Illinois shut out their opponent 14 times, tied for best in the country, and Zimka accounted for 11 of those shutouts.
"To do what he did as a sophomore was incredible," Simmons said. "He has a pro-goalie frame. He has all the tools and his work ethic has only continued to improve."
Zimka's presence in net was the final piece that solidified a formidable team defense.
"Our defense has a lot of chemistry," Algozino said. "Everyone is just so comfortable together and everyone is confident with the person next to them. Joe is huge in the back, especially with any ball in the air. We know if we can't get it he is coming up behind us to clean things up. It's a comfort knowing that we can let someone take a shot from outside and we are confident that he will take care of it."
The Huskies' starting defenders have a lot of experience playing together and Zimka appreciates the defense in front of him.
"I've given most of the credit to my defense over the last year," Zimka said. "It's not so often where I'd have to make an unbelievable save or anything. I always feel that I`m pretty good talking to my defense and organizing the back line. The organization in the back was so good. My defense all clicked together and worked real hard."
With the entire starting defense returning, Zimka and the Northern Illinois defense figures to be as hard to penetrate as ever.
Zimka, an Algonquin, Ill. native, took time in the summer to compete for the Chicago Fire Premier and the U.S. Super Y-League Super-20's team to improve his game.
"Joe is important to what we do and I expect him to improve tremendously," Simmons said. "He sets his expectations so high and he invites that kind of pressure."
Since the defense was so hard to beat, many times when the Huskies lost, it was as a result of offensive futility. However in 2007, scoring help may be on the way.
Zimka mentioned junior college transfer Chris Johnson and rising senior forward Marcus McCarty as offensive players that could have major impacts next season.
"A lot of guys are real pumped for next year," Zimka said. "We have our whole defense back and some more goal scorers and an incoming freshman class that is top notch. I think we will be better at finishing on the offensive end."
With Zimka returning and all the pieces in place for Northern Illinois, the Huskies have high expectations for next season.
"Anything less than a MAC championship and going to the tournament would be a disappointment," Algozino said. "Now that we expect to be in the tournament we expect to do better than we did last year. We are looking to go the [College Cup]."
As for Zimka, he just wants to continue where he left off last season and put up similar numbers to help the team win.
"I don't want to feel that I have to prove it again and be held hostage by last year but I want to have another good season," Zimka said. "I'm working my hardest to do it again. I think it's possible since the defense is back so we might be able to get it done and maybe even be better."
Improving off last season's record-breaking statistics will not be easy but with Zimka, no prediction seems too improbable.