By Scott Dudinskie
The Daily Item
One of Dani Ard's keeper jerseys has "PHANTOM" emblazoned across the back in the space typically reserved for a player's surname.
It suits her, and not solely because of the "Danny Phantom" cartoon. One moment you see the Mifflinburg senior stalking the front of the cage, and the next she'll appear some 15, 20 feet away, challenging an attack.
Drives spectators nuts -- on both sides. Wildcats fans bury the anxiety needle when Ard leaves the cage unattended; opponents feverishly clamor for an extra pass to capitalize on a wide-open goal.
Then, in an instant, Ard shifts the dynamic with a kick clear. The Mifflinburg faithful cheer wildly, while the opponents (players and fans alike) are left frustrated.
If leaving her line is some kind of psychological tactic, though, Ard isn't telling.
"Sometimes I find that if I pressure the ball I don't necessarily have to make a save," she said.
Hard to argue because it's working. Ard led the Wildcats to their first Heartland Athletic Conference Division I championship with nine shutouts among the team's 14 wins. She has 32 career shutouts entering the District 4 Class AA playoffs, which begin today with two preliminary games.
Seventh-seeded Lewisburg (10-7-1) hosts No. 10 Muncy (9-9), while No. 9 Shikellamy (9-8-1) visits No. 8 Midd-West (10-8). Both games begin at 4 p.m.
The quarterfinal round is Thursday, with the top four seeds hosting 4 p.m. games. Mifflinburg (14-4), seeded third, plays No. 6 Central Columbia, and you can bet Blue Jays coach Bridget Mathias knows about Ard's penchant for playing in space. Word like that -- a potential game-changing advantage -- travels fast.
The reason it's no secret is first-year Wildcats coach Jayme Longacre, like her predecessor Ann Beckley, has no issue with Ard's style. Longacre realizes it produces anxious moments, but they're typically just that and not goal-scoring plays.
"I trust Dani 100 percent," Longacre said. "I hear fans saying,'She's out of the cage!' And it's scary, but I know she knows what she's doing. Very few times has it ever come back to bite her. So often her being aggressive and rushing that ball has helped, made some game-winning saves.
"I trust her, I know the girls trust her and she knows we believe in her. I have no problem with her coming out."
The question, then, is why does she do it? Why, when most every hockey keepers rely on the security of the cage frame and teammates in front of her, does Ard brazenly challenge breakaways, corner plays and any otherwise dangerous situation?
"I would say that it depends on a goalie's game play. Some goalies are more athletic, and myself, I'm not as athletic," she explained. "Other goalies are better at keeping their one little circle area and reaching those balls, making those dive saves, making those really fast, quick movements.
"For me, what I've been told, is I'm the kind of keeper that is a presence compared to one with athleticism."
If that seems contradictory (compensating for a lack of athleticism by making plays in space), it actually isn't. By leaving the cage to challenge, Ard can gain the upper hand and dictate play (with a clear or the like) before the attack can unleash a bullet at her pads. She gives the offense less time to create a scoring chance and more opportunity to make a mistake.
"Some goalies don't know the newer style of game play," said Ard, who is active in the Futures program. "Today they say that goalies are running goalies, not sliding goalies. It used to be all side slides; now it's drop, step and run. That's one thing that's definitely different -- the coming out -- as well as doing the stacks or dives or layouts. It didn't used to be that way. You used to hold back, stay back on your line. But with the new style of field play (faster, quicker), the style of goalie of play has changed.
"I don't know if it's necessarily rare. The thing is some goalies just don't have the direction."
Of course, it isn't fool-proof. In a recent home game against Shikellamy, Ard advanced too far in the circle during a corner play, attempted to retreat and went to the turf. Braves forward Alexa Toevs had a clear look at a tying goal that forced overtime.
Also, during a rain-soaked game at Midd-West, Ard left the circle to challenge a breakaway on the right side and slipped into the Mustang, causing a nasty collision. The officials conferred soon after, and Ard feared she would draw a yellow card or worse, though they were simply discussing the deteriorating conditions of the field.
"That was rough," she said. "I had to step out and I totally tossed that girl, but you had to do it. I mean, I hit ball first and that's what was important.
"This year I've noticed that my decision-making (of when to challenge) has been a little more spot-on. So I think that from my past two years at Futures and playing over the summer, I've broken out of my shell a little bit."
Ard is a multi-time HAC-I all-star enjoying her best season, both individually and team-wise. She blended her own confidence and competitiveness with new teaching, and a daring style evolved, one that is both exciting and terrifying to watch.
That's just fine with the Wildcats.
"I just think for Dani, personally, it's her biggest strength," said Longacre. "She's not one to just stand on the line in the goal cage at all. It works for her so we're going to keep it that way."
"Sometimes you just have to go out and do it," Ard said. "If they score, at least you made the effort."