By Michael Lewis
KINGS POINT, N.Y. -- Gary Poulin quite literally did not get off on the right foot for this soccer season.
During a pre-season training session this past summer, Poulin suffered a broken leg, putting a damper on his junior year before it even began.
He wound up missing the Mariners' opening five games. It took a while to find his form and fitness, but after the Hauppauge High School graduate did, he has been one difficult goalkeeper to solve.
"Certainly I was very disappointed that I got the call that he hurt himself so badly," Mariners head coach Mike Smolens said. "The good thing about Gary, coach [John] Fitzgerald and myself consider him one of our hardest workers and a young man who is going to do everything he can to make himself as good a player as he can. . . . Knowing that it's him, if anyone was going to come back from an injury, he's the type of player and person who can come back from an injury, which is great."
Poulin has been a major reason why the Mariners reached the first round of the NCAA Division III tournament, recording road shutouts against Drew University (3-0) and Catholic University (1-0) in the Landmark Conference semifinals and final last week, respectively.
In fact, Poulin earned a hat-trick of honors in the past seven days, having been named a Landmark first-team selection, garnering conference defensive player of the week honors and being chosen as a 2011 Capital One Academic All-District Team (District 3 selection for his classroom achievements.
At the present time, Poulin is more focused on the games at hand than his personal accomplishments. He followed a similar approach as he worked his way back from his broken his leg.
"It was very frustrating for me, seeing the team working, getting ready for the season," Poulin said about being sidelined. "Things happen, things go wrong, things you think you might have a little input on. You could have helped out the team and you can't do anything about it on the sideline."
Poulin's recovery was aided by Mariners physical therapist John Cavanaugh and assistant athletic trainer Meg Walsh.
"Both of them deserve a lot of credit for the work they've done to help guide him through the process to get him back and to make sure he was safe and healthy," Smolens said. "When he came back, he was safe and healthy, but he wasn't in top game form."
Poulin made his 2011 debut in the second half of the 2-1 home win over Goucher College on Sept. 17. For all the progress he had made, Poulin was reminded how far he still had to go.
"It was a real good feeling to be back and playing again, but I also realized I had a long way to go before I was back in form for the rest of the season," he said. "II did let in a goal in that game. It was a pretty close game and I was struggling a little bit. So I realized there was a lot of work ahead of me, still."
He might have been fit, but not necessarily match fit. Those are two entirely different forms. For a goalkeeper, being match fit is physical, particularly getting into a rhythm, and mental as well, as in confidence.
"Goalkeeper form is very important," Poulin said. "Also, its explosiveness and strength, a lot of that, wasn't there. It took a little while to get that back. That was probably the biggest thing that I was lacking is to have that explosiveness and the ability to move side to side because I did not have that speed that I normally have."
That the 6-foot Poulin came back so quickly did not surprise Fitzgerald and Smolens. They had known about his ability and work ethic for year. Fitzgerald had watched Poulin when he was youngster playing for the Hauppauge and Smithtown clubs in the Long Island Junior Soccer League.
"As he became older, he improved," Fitzgerald said. "He had size and athleticism. They don't always pair well together. So for him, it did. He had a terrific attitude. l watching him as he got older with his high school team – he definitely was a leader there – he had the right goalkeeper personality. He would come out and challenge for balls that other goalkeepers wouldn't even challenge for – 50-50 ball that some might back off and shy away from."
But that wasn't necessarily Poulin's only strength.
"His communication is very good," Fitzgerald said. "His ball stopping is very good. His positioning. He truly understands the game. And, he can play with his feet, which is a plus for a goalkeeper. He's a very good student, very coachable. A smart kid."
Certainly smart enough to get himself recovered and back in shape for another memorable NCAA tournament run for the Mariners.
Photo: Gary Poulin has been a major reason for the Mariners' late-season success. Photo by Shawn Antonelli