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For Harvard netminder Gillian D'Souza, mind games come before hockey games. When her fantasy goaltending is strong, the Harvard women's hockey team reaps real benefits.
D'Souza visualizes her performances before every game. After visual sessions when few imagined pucks fly by her, the senior goalie has been known to play games in unbeatable Rod Serling-esque zones.
"I usually start getting nervous the night before a game," D'Souza says. "I just think about the game. I do a lot of visualization. I picture the team, the colors, the rink, everything. I picture myself making all the saves and not making any mistakes."
Last season, many of those visions became reality. D'Souza posted a .917 save percentage and a 2.69 goals-against-average in 18 outings--many of them played on mental auto-pilot.
"The best games I play are the ones where I'm just playing out of my head," she says. "You're not really thinking about what you're doing, you're just doing it."
D'Souza entered her most impressive zone at the most important time of last season--the Ivy League tournament. The Crimson had struggled to a 4-5-1 Ivy record in the regular season, good for fourth place in the league and a first-round playoff date with undefeated Cornell, heavily favored.
Against the Big Red, D'Souza had the kind of game visions are made of, turning back 31 shots in Harvard's 5-2 victory. D'Souza was virtually unbeatable the next night, making 21 saves in the Crimson's 5-1 championship win over Princeton.
Considering that D'Souza was born in Tanzania, not exactly a hockey hotbed, her route to the Crimson was surprisingly uncomplicated. When she was four, her family moved to Bramford, Ontario. That winter, she began to skate. She began playing in youth leagues, and eventually caught the eye of Harvard Coach John Dooley.
Dooley had found himself a promising recruit, ready to play at the collegiate level. But there was a catch. That catch was Jen White, the incumbent goalie who occupied the net during D'Souza's freshman and sophomore seasons.
"She patiently waited during Jen White's time," Dooley said. "She is someone who never complains. She just works hard."
The litmus test of that work came last year, when the relatively inexperienced junior was thrust into the starting spotlight. She registered victories over Yale and Brown in her very first starts.
"She just stepped in and performed beautifully," Co-Captain Sandra Whyte says. "We were all confident to have her back there."
Throughout the season, D'Souza showed the toughness that helped to distinguish her as one of the league's top goalies. Two days before the Brown game, D'Souza broke a finger on her stick hand, and could barely grip her stick. Although she was hurt, she posted a shutout in the Crimson's 1-0 win.
Pressure has never distracted D'Souza. Whether on the rink or in the lab fulfilling pre-med requirements, the biology major is able to keep a clear focus.
"Last year when we came to the Ivy League tournament, I was doing microbial research in the bio labs," D'Souza says. "My advisor just couldn't wait for hockey to end, but I went out there and said `You know, I really want to win. Forget everything else, I want to win this tournament.'"
In her rare free moments, D'Souza works at the Brigham and Women's Hospital and volunteers her time to work with the elderly of Cambridge. Her dedication to the community is reflected in her play on the ice.
"She's sensitive to everyone else's needs," Dooley says. "She has been super-encouraging to [sophomore goalie] Lexi Schear. She's a very giving person."
With D'Souza visualizing success, another title could be in store.
"I really want to do well this year," D'Souza says. "I want to keep up my personal level of intensity and play well not only in the physical aspect, but in the mind game as well."
She can see it already.
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