In the water, sophomore goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong is a force to be reckoned with. Her intimidating wingspan dares anyone to attempt a shot on goal. Her finely tuned reflexes and physical condition make scoring an even less frequent occurrence. She directs her teammates with a strong voice and seems to always know exactly where the ball is going.
But catch up with her out of the water, and except for her 6-foot-1 height, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that she is an honorable mention All-American, that she holds the Michigan record for saves in a single season with 317 or that she was a starting member of the Junior National Team when she was just a junior in high school. Armstrong’s demeanor fails to belie her status as one of the best goalkeepers in Michigan history and the possibility that she could become one of the best netminders in the nation.
“The key to Betsey is what a neat young lady she is and what a wonderful teammate she is,” Michigan coach Matt Anderson said. Anderson first met Armstrong while she was on the Junior National Team, and he was helping coach the men’s Junior National Team.
“I think the team appreciates her in the sense that Betsey, athletically and physically, is at a level that very few athletes have the honor of being at. But yet if you met her, talked with her and played with her, you would have no idea that she is going to go down as one of the best goalies in the history of women’s water polo,” Anderson said. “She’s very unassuming like that, and that’s what’s so neat about her.”
Instead you might be more likely to discover that she, like most college students, is unsure of what kind of career she wants, even though she decided on classical archeology as a major this year. You would probably find out that she enjoys listening to Radiohead, and that she is an Ann Arbor native who wanted to go to the University ever since she was a child.
What Armstrong won’t tell you is how hard life is as a student athlete. She won’t brag or rip on teammates and coaches. She just works hard, both in the classroom and in the water.
Her coaches, though, will tell you all the reasons she deserves to be known as one of the best goalies in Michigan water polo history. She has made it a habit to break just about every Michigan goalkeeping record there is. Last year, she set the record for single-season blocks (317), lowest goals against average (6.57) and steals in a game by a goalkeeper (six). She also registered the most minutes played all-time at Michigan while playing in 35 out of 40 games.
She was recognized at the end of last season as the Eastern Championships title game MVP, named to the first team All-Southern Division and given All-America honorable mention.
And that was just her freshman year.
A family tradition
“Growing up, I’d always wanted to go to Michigan, separate from water polo,” Armstrong said.
An understandable attitude for an Ann Arbor native whose sister attended the University and whose father teaches here. The fact that Michigan’s program was promoted to the varsity level in 2001 did nothing but further Armstrong’s decision to go to Michigan instead of the multitude of other schools that were wooing her.
Armstrong’s love of the water made her a natural for the sport. As a kid she and her sister swam at the neighborhood pool every day, and by the time she was in middle school, she was already playing club water polo. After a few years, she found herself in the goalkeeper position.
“With my height and speed and my swimming and stuff, it was kind of the best place to put me,” Armstrong said.
At the end of her high school career, Armstrong had already established herself on the national scene, and she knew she wanted to play college water polo. At Huron High School, she was Michigan Rookie of the Year in 1998 and Player of the Year and MVP in 2000. Starting her junior year, Armstrong was also a part of the National Development Team. Anyone probably could have predicted how much she would thrive here at the University, but it seems no one can escape being impressed by her devotion to her sport and her training.
Sophomore Jo Antonsen, who also happens to be one of Armstrong’s roommates, remarked that Armstrong was “one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
“She’s really amazing in and out of the water. It’s unbelievable the saves she makes,” said Antonsen. “She’s a role model academically and athletically.”
In the pool, Armstrong goes all out.
“Betsey, physically, is an extremely hard worker,” Anderson said. “At times, I have to pull the reins back on her because she works so hard, and that is part of the reason why she’s at the level she is (at). She doesn’t slack off.”
The mental warrior
These hardworking qualities are crucial in a position as important as the goalkeeper.
“Whenever I scout an opponent, the first thing I look at is their goalkeeping because that’s the last line of defense,” Anderson said. “You’re going to get your shots, so the question is, will the goalie be able to stop them?”
For Armstrong, the answer is usually yes. Anderson added that she “makes up for a lot of goals that would go in on a normal keeper.”
But what about the goals that do go in? The mental aspect of a position like goalkeeper is the most important part, both coach and player said.
“I think (the position) is very, very mental,” Armstrong said. “You need to be confident, and you need to always be focused on the game and know what’s going on everywhere at all times.”
“As a goalie, whether it’s hockey, soccer, or water polo, the mental part of the game is the biggest part,” he said. “You have to know that you’re going to get scored upon, but you also have to not let it get you down to where balls go in that shouldn’t go in.”
The last part is rarely a problem for Armstrong – even in practice.
“The difference with Betsey is, she gets pissed when balls get scored in practice,” Anderson said. “That’s a big difference from most goalies, who kind of horse around in practice. Betsey doesn’t like to be scored upon in practice, and she doesn’t like to be scored upon in a game. She has never and will never blame her teammates.”
He said that although Armstrong always blames herself for goals, she shouldn’t dwell on them.
“She always thinks its her fault when the ball goes in, and it’s our job as coaches to keep that fire burning so that she doesn’t like to be scored upon,” Anderson said. “But we also don’t want to put the pressure on her so that she thinks it’s her fault, because it isn’t when the ball goes in.”
Anderson said he usually faults the defense for goals scored against Michigan, because it lets the shot be taken in the first place and “all a goalie can do is save you.” But as far as having a strong probability that the shot will be saved, Michigan thinks it has great chances with Armstrong in the cage.
“I do know Michigan is at the level we are because our last line of defense is as good as you can get at this level,” said the Michigan coach.
Anderson knows Armstrong already has earned herself a place in the Michigan water polo history books.
“I don’t think (she) realizes how good she is or how good she can be, and that’s a positive, because you want a player never to think that they don’t need to get better,” he said.
This summer, when she’s hanging out at the pool or perhaps studying abroad on an archeological dig, Armstrong probably won’t be thinking about her record-breaking stats or her potential to become an even better water polo goalkeeper. But don’t be fooled. As she has shown this year and last, Armstrong and her wingspan will be all business once she hits the water.