ellow is the only thing on Zoe Ochoa’s mind as she crouches in the lacrosse net. No, it’s not her favorite color, nor is she singing Coldplay. In order to eliminate all the distractions on and around the field, she concentrates on the yellow hue of the ball. As opposing forwards circulate the net, Ochoa plays a high-stakes game of Where’s Waldo, constantly searching for the flashes of color.
“When you get into a groove, you feel like you’re just in a bubble in your goal,” Ochoa said.
It is this disciplined focus that turns her bubble into a shield that denies almost every opposing shot that comes her way. A four-year starter between the pipes for Boston College lacrosse, Ochoa ranks fifth all-time with 281 saves in her career. But she does not focus on her personal milestones. Her main goal is to win a national championship as a team—her goal individually is simply to stop every ball that comes her way.
Fittingly, this selflessness and drive to improve is what landed her a spot on BC in the first place.
Growing up in Longmeadow, Mass., where lacrosse was the town’s most popular sport, it was practically guaranteed that Ochoa would end up with a stick in her hands. What she did not expect was for that stick to be for a goaltender.
During her freshman and sophomore years of high school, Ochoa played defense. With lots of talented defenders in the grade below her, it was going to be difficult for Ochoa to get on the field her junior year. Toward the end of the season, Ochoa’s coach, Steve Dudeck, decided to take a risk. Dudeck’s team needed a goalie for the coming year and hoped Ochoa would be interested in getting more playing time.
Dudeck remembers taking Ochoa aside and asking her to switch positions. With only a second of hesitation, Ochoa agreed. “She was like, ‘Yeah … I’ll try goalie,’” Dudeck recalled. “It was kind of funny because usually kids are like, ‘No way!’”
With two weeks left in her sophomore season, Ochoa suited up and stepped into the net. Everything clicked. Dudeck was not surprised by her success for he knew that Ochoa was already a great, well-rounded athlete. He believes Ochoa’s initial success can be attributed to the superb hand-eye coordination she developed during her experience with basketball, and that her hard work carried her from there.
In order to improve, Ochoa worked endlessly over the summer and was rewarded with the starting goalie position her junior year. She continued to refine her skills and, by the end of the year, had a few colleges interested in her.
But because she only had limited experience, Ochoa attended training camps over the summer to increase her chances at landing a spot at her dream school—BC. While Ochoa was at the UMass camp, Eagles head coach Acacia Walker contacted Dudeck about her need for a goalie. Dudeck told her about Ochoa, and Walker dispatched one of her assistants at the UMass camp. The assistant took a look at Ochoa, was impressed by her performance, and decided to put in a good word. Soon after, Walker contacted Dudeck in hopes of getting Ochoa to come up for the BC lacrosse camp in July.
“I remember Zoe’s mom calling me saying, ‘I don’t want her to have to go all the way to this camp and pay this money if they are not really interested,’” Dudeck said. “So I had to convince Zoe’s mom that it was going to be worth it to go up there and give it a shot.”
At the camp, Ochoa worked hard to secure her spot on the squad. She met with Walker and went out of her way to interact with current team members. The experience paid off—Ochoa’s skills and personality won her a spot on her dream school’s squad. But there was a catch. Walker decided to take Ochoa as the team’s third goalie.
“Acacia told me, ‘You know, she’ll be a good back up,’” Dudeck said. “And Zoe, well she wasn’t happy because BC was her number one, but she was hoping that they would give her a shot.”
Thankfully for Zoe, BC did.
When you get into a groove, you feel like you're just in a bubble in your goal. Zoe Ochoa
fter working hard in the offseason to refine her goaltending skill, Ochoa came to BC and immediately earned the starting position. With only two seasons of experience, though, she still had a lot to learn from her coaches in order to be successful in the ACC.
“I owe a lot to the coaches because they really did take the time to kind of teach me the basics of being a goalie when I was a freshman in college,” Ochoa said. “It was really cool to have that support.”
When Ochoa was not working with the BC coaches, she would drive two hours back to Longmeadow just to get in a workout with her high school friend, Mollie Mackler, who was a goalie at Duke from 2009-12, and a volunteer assistant coach at BC from 2013-14.
Mackler and Ochoa paid a lot of attention to managing Ochoa’s physical and mental game.
“You need to do a great deal of work to put yourself in the right place mentally to succeed,” Mackler said. “A very minor tweak in technique can affect your whole game in a significant way, as well.”
These tweaks are what allow goalies to shine in the most competitive conference in Division-I lacrosse. Focusing on minor details can become tedious, but Ochoa more than welcomed the challenge. During workouts, Mackler realized Ochoa’s drive to improve was relentless, and far from selfish—Ochoa always had the team on her mind as motivation.
“Zoe brings fierce intensity and a strong desire to deliver for her team to the table,” Mackler said. “I knew she had the potential to be a great goalie … she had great instincts for stepping to and attacking the shot and was never short on hustle.”
This drive for improvement allowed Ochoa to go from a field player to a D-I lacrosse goalie in just two years. Given the abundance of talent in the ACC, this is no small feat—Ochoa plays an integral role, especially when games are close.
Her proudest save was during her sophomore season. The Eagles were down in Chapel Hill with their undefeated record on the line against No. 2 University of North Carolina. The teams headed into overtime after a highly contested 60 minutes. With only seconds remaining on the clock, BC clung to a slim one-goal lead as UNC rushed toward the net in a last-ditch effort to tie the game. Ochoa turned away the first shot, but committed a dangerous turnover on the clearance after making the initial save. One of the Tar Heels saw an opportunity to knot the game, but Ochoa glimpsed the yellow and acrobatically lunged from behind the net, flopping toward the ball. The yellow sphere ricocheted off of her pads away from the net, sealing the game for BC and leaving the Eagles as the only undefeated team in ACC play.
Two years later, Ochoa is now playing in her final season at BC.
While she hopes her team can leave its legacy by winning a national championship, Ochoa also wants to pass down lessons from last year’s seniors. Ochoa is still close with the Class of 2016 and continues to admire the way those seniors led the team.
“Everyday I try to think to myself, ‘What would Molly do in this situation?’” Ochoa said of last year’s team captain. “I really admired how hard [the Class of 2016] worked and how much they supported all of us, and [I] want to keep that type of leadership in our class as well.”
Ochoa has possessed that supportive style of leadership ever since stepping foot on the Heights. Whether or not she is in the net, she is always the team’s biggest cheerleader.
Ochoa does not need a pregame ritual or lucky socks to play her best. By simply playing for her teammates and focusing on “the yellow,” Ochoa’s success in the net will guarantee a legacy that will last for decades.
Featured Image by Lucas Xuan / Heights Staff