From Colorado Springs to Gamecock country, Colorado Sate goaltender Hunter Peifer played at the highest levels of women’s soccer before finding her place as a member of the CSU soccer family.
Many young players shy away from the idea of stepping in front of shots, directing the flow of the game and using hands. But these are among the exact responsibilities that attracted Peifer to the goalie position at 13 years old.
“I liked the position because it was so different in that you could make such an impact with just your voice,” Peifer said. “You got to be a little bit crazy, which I kind of am. I was always willing to throw myself in front of the ball at a young age, so I just had to learn technique from there.”
At 13, picking up a new position is a challenge, but the Colorado Springs native didn’t miss a beat and established herself as an elite recruit before the conclusion of her sophomore year at Cheyenne Mountain High School.
“I committed my sophomore year, which is crazy early,” Peifer said. “I went on a bunch of different school tours and traveled all over the country my sophomore year. I went to Oregon, Texas, South Carolina and others.”
Peifer toured several schools in Colorado as well, but CSU, in only its inaugural season as a program, wasn’t on the high school sophomore’s shortlist.
“She had committed so early in the process that we weren’t even a player in her thought process,” CSU coach Bill Hempen said. “She’s going off to the SEC, the big time, so Colorado State wasn’t on her radar.”
Peifer committed to South Carolina as a sophomore, but didn’t graduate from CMHS without leaving her mark. In 3,312 career minutes, Peifer allowed just 17 goals to lead the Indians to two consecutive 4A state titles.
The goalie’s prolific numbers caught the attention of the nation’s leading soccer authority and Peifer was invited to the 2014 Under-20 Women’s National Team development camp. Among others, Peifer fondly remembers competing with US Olympian and rising national team star, Mallory Pugh.
Amid her high school, club and national team schedule, Peifer had a loaded soccer itinerary, but an ankle injury during her senior year forced the keeper to take a step back. The injury followed Peifer to South Carolina, pushing the keeper to redshirt her freshman season.
“Redshirting my freshman year was nice to kind of get in and get slowly into the program and get used to that type of level because it was definitely different from high school and club,” Peifer said.
As a redshirt, Peifer adapted to the intangible parts of the college game, but didn’t see the field in her first year as a Gamecock. The next year, Peifer racked up three wins, three saves and allowed one goal in four appearances. With Peifer as the backup goalie, South Carolina finished the 2016 season with an overall record of 21-2-1 and a berth in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals.
South Carolina was an elite team coming off an outstanding season, but something key was missing for Peifer heading into her redshirt sophomore season.
“I am very close to my family and being that far away was really hard on me,” Peifer said. “All the other girls were from close by and had family there at the games and everything. I struggled.”
Peifer didn’t waste a moment at South Carolina and transferred from the current No. 1 ranked team in the nation at the end of the 2016 fall semester. The goalie switched to be closer to her family in Colorado Springs, but upon arriving at CSU with a shoulder injury, Peifer realized she was now part of a new type of family.
“I had a lot of support while I was coming back this season,” Peifer said. “The girls were absolutely amazing and the coaches were so supportive. It was nice to come to a program like this that is so supportive. It’s truly a family here.”
The supportiveness and familial atmosphere of the CSU soccer program may have been a welcome surprise to Peifer, but it’s something the program has been building for years.
“With us being a new program, we’re trying to develop our own culture – what we want to get out as a group and what we value,” CSU defender Halley Havlicek said. “That comes with us coming together and deciding that we want to be a close-knit family. We’re each other’s best friends, so it’s easy to do that.”
Once Peifer arrived at CSU, she quickly learned how close the Rams were off and on the field, as the redshirt sophomore was pitted into a highly competitive three-way battle for this season’s starting goalie job with Paige Brandt and Sydney Hall.
Since the Sept. 1 game versus New Mexico State, Peifer has started every game for the Rams, yet acknowledges that she is not locked into the starting role.
“One of her goals every week is to remain the starter, so I don’t think she looks at it like it’s her job,” Hempen said. “She knows she has to battle because Paige and Syd both have their good and bad. She knows that and they train hard together.”
Among the games in which Peifer started for the Rams, the two back in her hometown of Colorado Springs stand out. For the first time in a long time, the stands were littered with friends and family.
“It was absolutely amazing and a little weird to play in my hometown,” Peifer said. “My family and friends got to come and my parents’ goddaughters look up the team and they play soccer and they got to come watch. It was absolutely awesome.”
Peifer can plan on playing in front of her friends and family for the foreseeable future if the relationship she has with her CSU soccer family continues to flourish as much on the field as it does off it.
“In games and practices, we’re creating the relationship on the field that we have off the field,” Peifer said. “Of course, players have to get used to playing with each other and I think there’s been a few moments where the communication or something is off, but I think we’re getting better and better every game.”
Peifer and the Rams will continue to experience ups and downs on the field as the young team builds unity. But the bonds that unite this squad away from the pitch and transcend the line between team and family will remain strong.
“We all live together, we all go to class together,” Havlicek said. “I think it just comes naturally to us to support each other and be there for one another.”
Collegian sports reporter Christian Hedrick can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @ChristianhCSU.