Pleasant Valley's Ashlee Kwak makes a save during a Class 3A regional final Monday against Bettendorf. Kwak, a senior, has the Spartans in the state tournament in her first year as a starter.

Three years ago, it was Cora Meyers. Last year, it was Jenna Ruccolo.

Now, it's Ashlee Kwak's turn.

After three years of biding her time, Kwak got her shot this season as the starting goalkeeper for Pleasant Valley and has risen to the challenge, helping the Spartans return to the state tournament as PV plays top-ranked Waukee at 4 p.m. today. It's the sixth trip in the last seven years for PV and the program's 17th overall.

"It feels really good, just to finally be able to play the full 80 minutes," Kwak said. "It's nice to be able to be focused the entire game, in the moment. ... It's really rewarding to finally be able to play this year."

Kwak's path is one of patience, putting in most of her work during practices and JV contests. While at times it could be a little frustrating to sit on the bench during games, she never let it affect her attitude.

"She's a great teammate," PV head coach Ed Knupp said. "She was ready whenever I needed her, never complained about getting on the field and trained hard every day. The scrimmages we had for practice, those were her games."

There was little chance Kwak would start as a freshman, not with Meyers, who was an Iowa recruit and four-year starter for the Spartans.

She saw 30 minutes of action that year, allowing one goal on three shots and played another game in the field, and even that small amount of playing time helped.

"I learned to always be very vocal on the field," Kwak said. "To be able to communicate well with your defense and everyone, whether they're on or off the field, to be able to do it successfully, not yell at them, but coach them more from the back."

When Knupp took over the program last year, he knew the potential Kwak had, having coached her during goalie camps while she was in grade school. His hope was to get Kwak plenty of second half playing time last season, but even though PV went 15-3, 10 of those wins were by two goals or fewer, so Kwak only saw 90 minutes of playing time after seeing 180 as a sophomore.

"That was not the plan; my plan was to try and develop her," Knupp said. "To her credit, she trained especially hard in practices, and I spent 15 minutes, usually more, with the goalkeepers every day last year so she got a lot of good training. We've used all of this time to get her to this point where she plays confidently, she makes the saves she should make, and if she gets beat with a shot, it's because it's a great shot or a defensive breakdown."

This year, there was little doubt the job was Kwak's, and suddenly she was thrust into an incredibly important position as the Spartans were looking to replace six seniors from last year's state tournament squad.

The only two seniors were Kwak and defender Sam Hutton, and while it put a lot of pressure on the duo, Kwak made it clear right from the start she was up to the task, grabbing shutouts in her first two games. This season she's posted nine shutouts and has allowed 18 goals, her 55 saves third most among the Class 3A tournament field.

"To start the season, we all were a little bit nervous and didn't know how it would turn out," said Hutton, who is heading to play at Wisconsin-Platteville. "She's come up with some huge saves for us that have kind of saved some games. To see her able to do that and not knowing where we were going to start with things is incredible."

Kwak has also played the role of mentor for freshman backup keeper Sydney Zabel, hoping to get her ready for the future.

But right now, she's focused on this final weekend of her high school career, a long time coming.

"I think it's hitting me now that I've graduated," Kwak said. "This weekend, we're just going to do the best we can do, play some of the best soccer that we have this season."

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