Jamie Gerstenberg can’t predict what’s coming. But what does that matter?
She’s in an unfamiliar position, but she won’t allow doubt to creep in. She fixes her eyes on the threat resting on the penalty spot, 12 yards away. Soon, it’ll scorch across that space, expecting a smooth landing in the nylon mesh behind the freshman German goalkeeper.
The wind at Jerry Yeagley Field has been unforgiving up to this point. It’s ripping through the branches of the cherry blossom tree past the track, slapping across players’ faces and finding every way to make those not bundled up in the stands uncomfortable.
Gerstenberg, IU’s freshman goalkeeper, has spent the last 90 minutes staying alert, barking instructions to her backline to avoid any unnecessary miscues. New faces constantly come in and out, but she handles the responsibility all the same. Now, she’s the only one standing between disappointment and exhilaration.
Finally, the breeze carries over the ominous tune of the referee’s whistle and breaks the tension. Instinct takes control. Gerstenberg makes her move.
The ball meets the latex of the gloves instead of the nylon of the net. The impact and weight shorten Gerstenberg’s descent from her sprawling leap, but cheers erupt before she can reach the ground.
This isn’t a November match with Big Ten standings in the balance. It’s April, a few months into the offseason, and Indiana women’s soccer is playing exhibition matches to work out kinks with the incoming class of players.
Gerstenberg approaches this match no differently. The opponent, Butler University, won’t have it easy.
In the penalty shootout, Gerstenberg denies two strikes looking to sneak into the far corners. Her frame pressures another Bulldog into a mind game, and the goalkeeper wins it when the shot clangs off the post.
You wouldn’t know the Hoosiers had just drawn the Bulldogs 0-0 in regulation and 2-2 in penalty kicks. The result is irrelevant, but Gerstenberg’s individual performance can’t be ignored.
She sprints over toward the small crowd gathered in the south bleachers of Bill Armstrong Stadium, primarily made up of parents and dedicated supporters, and pumps her fists. She’s overjoyed. She’s quickly grown comfortable and confident in this once-foreign place, making the most of the opportunity she always dreamed of.
Sofia Black won't forget the look.
She’s made the trip from New Jersey plenty of times with her family, but when the train doors open at Penn Station on a chilly afternoon during Thanksgiving break, a different passenger hops onto the platform alongside her. Once the escalator reaches daylight, Black hurries to take on the first task on their itinerary: shopping.
But Gerstenberg’s eyes haven’t moved.
Those eyes, usually tracking a rising shot or floating cross, are locked in on the towering New York City skyline. Growing up, Gerstenberg could only see these sights through a TV screen. She’s comparing the bits and pieces she’d filled in with her imagination, so the fitting rooms can wait. Times Square and Central Park are next on the agenda.
Reserved for a later date: Los Angeles, Chicago and anywhere else she finds the time to visit.
“You could tell her love for seeing America and all these things she pictured,” Black said. “It made me feel so happy for her.”
In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, Gerstenberg stayed with Black’s family and celebrated the holiday for the first time. The freshman and sophomore built trust with one another after just a few months of being teammates, and Gerstenberg found it easy to be herself and fit in despite the circumstances.
Gerstenberg said she’s always been inspired by America and knew from a young age she wanted to experience living in the States — alone. She said she’d feel trapped and less likely to branch out socially if a relative from her hometown in Birkenwerder, Germany tagged along to babysit.
She sped up the process at 16 years old, when she broke into the senior squad of 1. FFC Turbine Potsdam in the Frauen-Bundesliga, German women’s soccer’s top flight. The roster was littered with players in their mid-to-late 20s whose personalities were far too unrelatable.
Soon enough, it was time; she could start a soccer career in an environment she had dreamed about, should any college be interested. Head coach Erwin van Bennekom’s Hoosiers were.
“If I stay in a place too long, I know I’ll get bored,” Gerstenberg says. “I needed that change.”
The soccer pitches in Germany symbolize a past life. Gerstenberg visits from time to time — not to reminisce, but to work. Under-20 national team duty briefly called her back home in late October of her freshman year during the final stretch of IU’s regular season schedule.
Only a handful of months had passed since Gerstenberg first arrived on campus in Bloomington in the summer of 2021. Soon after, she shifted her focus toward the place she’d call home for the next four years. Adjusting to the English language and American game often isn’t simple, but goalkeeper coach Kevin Schenk said Gerstenberg picked the language up quickly and had no trouble easing into IU’s tactical system.
She could’ve tried to cheat the process and revert to the language with which she had grown up. Anna Aehling and Oliwia Wos, a pair of defenders who played their last matches for IU in the fall, also came from Europe. Gerstenberg says the group spoke German on the pitch on rare occasions, primarily to clarify minor misunderstandings, but mostly communicated in English. The freshman kept a calm and confident demeanor as her relationship with the language grew stronger.
“She’s very sure of herself, and that projects onto her teammates,” Schenk said. “They trusted her right away.”
The energy bomb should walk through those locker room doors anytime now. That’s when the party can really get started. Everyone’s waiting.
It’s match day. Emotions are high, the atmosphere is perfect and kickoff is inching closer. The opponent, location and start time are irrelevant — Gerstenberg gets her nap in all the same.
Only then can she wake everyone else up with the contagious energy that leads the locker room through its collective dancing and yelling. “I need that moment of rest, taking in the silence,” Gerstenberg says. “It’s about really calming down. I just have more energy and am ready to go.”
This pregame ritual is deceiving. Gerstenberg said her teammates often refer to her as “awake,” radiating with positive energy and happiness whether it be 7 a.m. or midnight. She hasn’t been shy about revealing her outgoing personality to the rest of the team.
Gerstenberg will often stroll in, unannounced, to the team house where Black lives, hoping to watch a movie or catch up.
On the first night of a spring break vacation in Florida with a group of seven of her teammates, Black recalled Gerstenberg bombarding her with questions while she drifted off late at night.
“That just shows you how much she cares about wanting to get to know people,” Black said.
Freshman goalkeeper Coast Liapis, one of Gerstenberg’s dormmates this past year, has fond memories of getting to know everyone better outside of campus during the same trip.
“What I pictured Jamie on spring break was exactly Jamie on spring break, which I loved,” Liapis said.
Gerstenberg’s command on the pitch, optimism and connection with her teammates have already influenced the culture that IU’s program is building. The Hoosiers will have an even younger core in 2022 than last season, so even more expectations will be placed on her shoulders.
She’s far from unprepared as a leader. When she first made her decision to play at IU, she figured this responsibility would come due to the nature of her position. She said her time playing at the highest level in Europe only adds to her confidence.
Whether a more defined role is in store for Gerstenberg or not, her teammates feel as though she’s displayed the character fit for it already in year one.
“She’s always caring and honest,” Black said. “She took a leadership role in that sense that she’s going to motivate people and make it as fun as possible.”
The spring schedule proved beneficial for all of IU’s players. Freshmen used it to get acclimated to van Bennekom’s system, while established players looked to fine-tune their skills.
Graduate student goalkeeper Bethany Kopel got to play the game she loves again.
Before Gerstenberg, Kopel served as an ironwoman between the posts for the Hoosiers. She took the No. 1 spot as a freshman in 2017 and never looked back. Kopel started every single match of her career from 2017 until the 2021 COVID-postponed spring season, setting multiple program records along the way.
In one of the matches that spring, Kopel suffered an undisclosed injury and missed the entire fall 2021 season. Over a year later, she’s made significant strides in her recovery — enough to get back in net for a few exhibition matches this April.
“I had this gut feeling I wasn’t done yet,” Kopel said. “I need to be here, help support my team and see where this program goes.”
After Kopel’s injury, Gerstenberg became the unrivaled heir to the throne. She responded with a historic rookie season — a program record nine individual shutouts, plus a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team — that gave van Bennekom little reason to pull the plug going forward.
“I’ve set a high bar if you only look at achievements,” Gerstenberg said. “I want to continue giving the best version of myself to the team.”
Both goalkeepers described it as “healthy competition” and have spoken about the positive relationship they’ve built in the past year. Gerstenberg said Kopel’s honesty and directness in training have been helpful, as well as her perspective as an experienced college player.
All and all, the freshman’s strategy and mentality seem to be unaffected by the veteran’s return.
“If anything, it’s just pushing you a little more,” Gerstenberg said. “I feel good about it.”
Schenk stares down the order.
A few seconds pass.
Whoever’s number he calls next needs to be ready. Finally, Gerstenberg gets her signal.
She maneuvers into position and stops the incoming shot.
Schenk uses the element of surprise in drills such as these to keep IU’s goalkeepers on their toes. His training philosophy is centered around game-realistic situations. Most importantly, though, he makes sure the players have fun with what they’re doing.
At some point, Gerstenberg or another goalkeeper will make a mistake. The “goalkeeping union,” as Kopel calls it, is quick to offer encouragement and reassurance.
“They just get on with each other really well,” Schenk says. “They’re competitive but supportive of each other. It’s not someone getting better at the expense of the group.”
This is one of the many support systems the program has provided Gerstenberg. From the moment she arrived, she went out of her own way to engage with her teammates and completely let her guard down to a bunch of strangers. The response was welcoming from the very first day.
Liapis and freshman defender Camille Hamm, Gerstenberg’s roommates, took it upon themselves to go out and stock up for the German’s dorm needs. Black invited her to her childhood home for an entire week, showed her around New York City and accepted her random visits on campus with open arms.
One payoff of those friendships? Ditching the dorms and moving into the other half of the team house duplex where Black currently lives. Now, Gerstenberg will have unlimited access to the people who match her energy most.
“Since I’ve been in America, I’m just enjoying life,” Gerstenberg said. “Realizing that my first year is almost over, I knew this was a good decision.”