THROUGH HELL AND BACK': Lady Lancers' Baron returns from a 2-year hiatus (ACL, pandemic) as she strives to be Trinidad's top goalkeeper

By Michael Lewis Editor

Saundra Baron on last Sunday's season-opening defeat: "I hate the result. I hate losing. There are no moral victories here. I think I should have done better on the two goals that I got scored on."

For someone who has competed in World Cup qualifiers and played overseas, Saundra Baron admitted she was nervous prior to the Rochester Lady Lancers' season opener against FC Buffalo Sunday.

And for good reason.

Baron hadn't played in a competitive game in two years. The goalkeeper was sidelined by an ACL injury in 2019 and by the time she recuperated, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down many sports, including many, if not all, women's soccer leagues, in 2020.

"I had been through hell and back," she said. "To get back on the field, I worked my ass off in the gym. My physical therapist Justin Farnsworth is the greatest human being who's ever lived. Just mental toughness to finally be back on a field with a team playing for something."

She later added: "To be back on the field was a flood of emotions."

The Trinidad & Tobago international was exceptional, making 15 saves, some of them spectacular in a 2-1 loss at Charles A. Schiano Sr. Field at Aquinas Institute in Rochester, N.Y.

Lady Lancers head coach Marc Dall was impressed with Baron's "grit, determination. She kept battling."

"She was definitely nervous," he added. "She is trying to get back to playing in Europe. So, it was a good feeling for her.  She held it together and kept us in the game."

As well as she performed, Baron took the loss hard.

"I hate the result. I hate losing," she said. "There are no moral victories here. I think I should have done better on the two goals that I got scored on. But I'm always going say that, no matter how I get scored on. We're not going to blame anybody. There's always something I could have done better."

Baron's story is a remarkable one. Born in Rochester, N.Y. she and her family moved to North Carolina, where she developed as a soccer player, attending Coastal Carolina College and East Carolina College. She made her international debut for the Women Soca Warriors (renamed from the Soca Princesses) in one of Rochester native Abby Wambach's final games, played professionally in Israel for a season and returned home to Rochester to help care for her father, who has Alzheimer's.

She has savored every moment in the net.

"Soccer is what frees me," Baron said. "It's my safe space that I'm glad I have it because those two years that I didn't have it, and not knowing if I would ever have it again, took a huge toll on me. That's why you don't take these moments for granted. So, no matter where I'm playing. When it is being in goal it is always going to be a blessing."

The journey begins

Barons was born in Rochester to immigrants from central Trinidad & Tobago, Shirleyanne and Joffre Baron. They both earned scholarships to Howard University, Shirleyanne securing a PhD. in organic chemistry while Joffre became a professional geologist and received his master's degree from Waterloo University in Canada.

My parents are the biggest blessing that I've ever had in my life," Baron said.

The Barons moved to Rochester, and Shirleyanne worked for Kodak. With three older brothers, "football was in our blood," Saundra said. "I was always chasing my brothers around."

She played T-ball, basketball and soccer, performed the latter sport for the Hilton Heat and Rochester Junior Rhinos.

Baron began as a field player, but her soccer teammates played a role in helping her decide on her preferred position.

"Everybody had to rotate positions when we were young, and nobody wanted to play in goal," she said. "So I just always hated that everyone would cry when there was time they're going in goals, I'd be like, "Fine. I'll do it just so I don't want to deal with it. It ended up sticking pretty well. My mom took me to a Rochester Junior Rhinos trial and the rest was history. I'm a goalkeeper. My mom believed in me.

"I couldn't imagine playing anywhere else. I was a forward for a little bit. I played all over the field but when I found my niche in the goal, there's just something that just took over. There's nothing in the world like that. Man, I love being a goalkeeper. It's my favorite thing."

Born July 20, 1994, Baron celebrated several birthdays at Frontier Field, home of the baseball Rochester Red Wings and the early home of the Rochester Rhinos. "Because I'm a summer birthday, my parents would always get all my friends group ticket rates and we would go to Frontier Field and watch the Rhinos play," she said.

The soul of a goalkeeper

Baron said that she has loved "the freedom of the position."

She played basketball and club soccer until her sophomore year in high school "until soccer just kind of took over."

"It was just natural for me that I was like, 'I think it's time. I think I can be a goalkeeper. I think I need to take this to the next level.' It's just freeing. When I'm in goal, nothing else matters. It's not flashy."

No, the 5-8 Baron is all business, even after when she has made a vital stop. She understood years ago she couldn't afford to lose concentration even if was the world's great save.

"When [someone] scores a goal, they get like 20 seconds to celebrate backflip, sliding to the post," she said. "When I make a save, I have to organize and collect myself. I have to see if I gave him a rebound. If I caught the cross, I have to be on it for the next play. I don't get a lapse in time. That kind of just keeps me focused in what I'm doing. And I just love being there in that moment. Making big saves is cool but I'm very even keeled. I'm intense, very intense. I know what I want."

And Baron isn't afraid to let her teammates know what's on her mind, as well.

"I'm direct and vocal, and just being that vocal leader just kind of calms me," she said. "It calms me down and it gets me into my mode. I always say I want to be in that mode, meaning that mode is being a goalkeeper. There's no other position I would rather play. I'm drawn to it. I love the work of it."

Baron's goalkeeping hero? Briana Scurry, who backstopped the U.S. women's national team to the 1999 Women's World Cup championship.

"Seeing someone looks like me to the African American female playing the goal here position, just back in that time and age, man there's nothing else in the world that I love more than watching Briana Scurry play," Baron said. "Just what she stands for, what she is she's dope. Briana Scurry is definitely, definitely, definitely someone I want to look up to."

Honoring your roots

As it turns out, a lot of other people believed in Baron as well.

Baron earned All-North Carolina honors while tending goal for Western Guilford High School. She was a member of various North Carolina ODP teams from 2007-11. That's when she was discovered by the T&T Under-17 women's national team, captaining the squad as well.

She also received a call from the U.S. U-15 girls team at the time. "Family roots took over and then I just been playing for Trinidad and Tobago ever since," Baron said.

Baptism by fire

The 26-year-old Baron's introduction to the highest level of women's soccer was baptism by fire as she was called on to be a late-match substitute against the United States during the team's Women's World Cup victory tour at the Alamodome in San Antonio Texas Dec. 10, 2015.

"It was 4-0 and coach [Randy] Waldrum looked down the bench and was just like, 'You're going in.' And my jersey was like three sizes too big. I was a junior at East Carolina. I just floated."

While waiting on the sideline to enter the match in the 76th minute, Baron, then 21, stood next to another Rochester native, Abby Wambach, at that time the planet's all-time international goal-scoring leader, preparing to enter the fray for the USA in one of her final games as a player.

"I made a diving like punch away save over Abby Wambach," Baron said. “I got scored on twice in 15 minutes. I slept [with] the picture of skinny little me in my first jersey and my first senior national team cap. That was the coolest thing.”

Wambach didn't score a goal, but it certainly was a thrill to play against such a soccer legend, especially one who was from their own hometown.

"Stepping on the same field as Abby Wambach was unreal because it was her send off," she said. "The next two games were her last games. People always ask me how do you feel playing against the U.S. national team? I was just like, 'When we're on the field together, we're all soccer players. When we walk out in that tunnel [with] my national team walking next to your national team, it’s game time.'

"But after that game I did want to go up to Abby really badly, but I had to hold my composure. I had to be a professional. I was scored on twice. I was still pissed. But man, that's Abby Wambach. We're both born in Rochester, New York. There's nothing like that."

An interesting aside: Baron's oldest brother, who played for Hilton High School, had a brush with Wambach years prior. He was in park and playing a pick-up game with Wambach and others.

"He was just like 'Abby was the best player out of all of us just playing pickup one day. Abby would just crush everyone.' "

As it turns out, Baron's five international caps have been bookended by USWNT matches. Her most recent appearance came in a 7-0 loss during qualifying for the Women's World Cup in Cary, N.C. Oct. 11, 2018. She faced 59 shots - that's an average of a shot every 90 seconds - and made 15 saves.

The T&T national side has faced many challenges, including not paying coaches, players bonuses, horrible working conditions through the years.

Baron said that was "another story for another day to the to the plight of the women's national team in Trinidad Tobago and the abuse that we go through and the disrespect. Hopefully, that I'm on the forefront of changing."

Israel sojourn

Playing for one's national team certainly can open doors up for players. After earning her master's degree in England, Baron interned for the Rochester Knighthawks in the National Lacrosse League.

After the second USA game and one against Venezuela, Baron made a highlight tape for her agent to offer to teams. She was hoping that perhaps a Swedish club would be interest. Maccabi Kishronot Hadera in Israel wanted to sign. Baron said she was skeptical but agreed to a five-month stint.

"Women's football in that country and everywhere can use some work," she said.

She said she walked 90 minutes to and then from "in the hot sun" to goalkeeper training. Baron added that she didn't have many helpers warming her up for games. "I would warm up against a wall," she added. "I'm not dissing this team at all. I will never trade it for anything. But what I've realized is a lot of goalkeepers that go overseas and these women's programs, they're lied to, especially if you're a goalkeeper.

"You're not going to get what you were promised. So, I had to have a mentality I would walk, an hour to the gym, workout before practice."

Eventually, Baron decided to attend men's training sessions because she knew there would be goalkeeper coaches and mentors from which to learn and hone the finer parts of her game. The keeper coach trained her after the men's goalkeepers practiced.

"I wouldn't trade the experience for the world," Baron said. "I know what I can do and I know my level. I'm ready for a new challenge as well."

We'll get to that in a minute.

Family comes first

Baron returned to Rochester recently to take care of her father, who has Alzheimer's and to play for the Lady Lancers. Her mother passed away when she was 18.

"So, I am the woman of my household," she said. "My father will always come first. When my mother died, she said take care of your father, and that's what I do. Life comes full circle in these moments. That's why I'm extremely blessed to be playing soccer again. Just to be on the field making saves. That's where I belong, but also where I belong is taking care of my father."

She did not forget the sacrifices Joffre made for her back in the day, driving long hours to some games Now, it was payback time.

"Everything I ever needed to succeed in soccer is because of my parents," Baron said. "That game [FC Buffalo] was an indictment of my life. My parents instilled in me [what] I will bring it every single game. I will be intense every single game, and I would lay it on the line for my teammates every single game I hope that's an example for my teammates to look up to and follow."

Baron, who sacrificed a pair of opportunities to play in Europe to help her father, said that she usually doesn't share such information from her personal life, but felt that "people need to know, so the people closest to me understand, because I never like feel bad for the person. I kind of just bare myself."

She drives her father to and from doctor's appointments. She also speaks to the doctors on his behalf. During the pandemic, getting groceries for Joffre "was really hard," Baron said.

"I was [leaving] groceries outside of the glass window and he doesn’t understand why I couldn't come in the house," she said.  "And especially not having his wife and his sons not close by, it's all on my shoulders. Turning down those offers twice in two different transfer cycles was really hard."

Her day job

As much as she loves the game, Baron still has to pay the bills.

She was a substitute special education teacher and worked in This is an 8:1:1 classroom (8 students, 1 teacher, and 1 teaching assistant) for students with mild to severe emotional disabilities in the Greece School District.

Now, she is strictly soccer as operations coordinator for the Rochester City Soccer League, which has programs for players between the ages of five to 23. League president Nicole Hercules, Baron's mentor, is and former Lady Lancers assistant coach. "She is everything I strive to be as a woman, as a businesswoman. as an entrepreneur, and just everything for our community and those kids in the city in that community, teaching the game that I love. I am blessed that I'm privileged to have that opportunity. I'm happy that she trusted me with it."

Baron works nights, coaching, running league operations and working on strategic plans for the future. That includes worked with the Urban League to get the league's children school and soccer resources. Players play and train at the Rochester Community Sports Complex, formerly the home of the Rochester Rhinos, and at Genesee Valley Park.

"I am blessed that I am a part of that because I'm a sports junkie but being in the city and being in my community is super important," she said.

Looking ahead internationally

Four years away from when many goalkeepers traditionally hit their prime in their 30's, Baron still wants to represent the Women Soca Warriors. Former Welsh women's national team assistant coach James Thomas, who was appointed as T&T boss April 28, was scheduled to have Zoom call the players as a team and individually this week.

"I'm ready," Baron said. "I've been the backup for the past five years. But it's time it's time for people to see that I can play on this stage. I've already proved it before but it's time for me to put the work in. I already do everything I need to already do everything I need to outside the field to everything else just getting fitter, getting stronger and just staying consistent."

Baron noted that the COVID-19 pandemic hit Trinidad & Tobago pretty hard, so she didn't know the next time she could visit the country. But there was always the possibility of a U.S.-based camp. Canada has done it for its national teams.

"For a lot of the girls, this might be our last go round for the older players," she said. "I'm only 26, so I think I still might have some years on me. But some of our seasoned veterans who have turned Trinidad Tobago women's football into what it is, and I'm proud of those girls, they deserve the proper preparation and the proper send off in this World Cup qualifying."

The next Women's World Cup is scheduled for Australia and New Zealand July 20-Aug. 20, 2023. Concacaf traditionally holds its qualifying competition in the fall prior to the tournament, so that is about 16 months away.

"We're going have our work cut out for us," Baron said. "The Caribbean teams are doing amazing. We can make the World Cup. There are extra spots in Concacaf now. So, we need this. We need to be prepared. We were one game away from being the first Caribbean team to make a World Cup in 2015. It's time for us to reignite that in Trinidad and Tobago."

Looking ahead domestically

There are 10 games to the UWS season, so not only is every match precious, but every minute is. The Lady Lancers got off to a difficult start against FC Buffalo. Beyond Baron's 15 saves is that the visitors hit the woodwork a stunning six times in the match.

When someone told Baron that she must have had an angel on her shoulder for those woodwork shots, she replied, "My mother."

She remembered back to the 7-0 game vs. the USWNT. "They hit the post about eight times," Baron said. "The score it could have been 20-0. It was only seven."

Baron felt Rochester will improve as the season progresses. The Lady Lancers welcome New Jersey Copa to Aquinas Institute Sunday at 2 p.m., the first game of a doubleheader with the Lancers men, who host FC Buffalo in a National Premier Soccer League contest at 5 p.m.

At the age of 26, Baron finds herself as one of the veterans. The Lady Lancers are dominated by current college players or recent graduates. Translated: she is a leader.

"My mentality is different," she said. "It's first time I'm one of the older players on a team, because I'm compared to everybody else. Everybody always calls me so young. I'm like the old lady on the team. One thing I want to give these girls is a mentality. Not everyone's going to match Saundra Baron's intensity, because I'm intense.

"Everybody prepares for games differently. Everyone prepares for training differently but one thing that I can get is to have a mentality that when we're out there and when you cross those white lines we're here to play. And one thing I say is you will not outwork me. That's what I got it from East Carolina when I played there. Our assistant coach always said you will not outwork me."

Dall, the Lady Lancers head coach, elaborated.

"She is who she is, very vocal and outspoken," he said. "The first time the players come in, some of the younger ones are like, 'Oh, they're a little bit nervous.' Then they start to understand her personality and how great it is. She loves it and being respected."

Baron wants her teammates to adopt a never-say-die attitude not just for the Lancers, but to bring back to their respective college teams and beyond.

"If we're a man down, no matter if we were outmatched on the day, no matter if we're tired. We find a way that we will not get outworked," she said. "If I can instill that mentality in this team, I did my job. Games are going be tough. These teams in the Northeast division are strong. They're very strong. But if I can instill in these girls [something] that they can take something back to their college teams and they got something out of me and me being a vocal leader and me being there for them, I did my job. ... When they go back to their college teams like, 'Dang, Saundra Baron meant something to me with how she worked, how she showed up, and how she cared about this team and how she cared about me."

Looking ahead, Europe

If Baron is successful this season she could be competing in Europe next year.

Instead, she hoped to be across the Atlantic Ocean, playing for a European team while preparing for qualifying later that year for the 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

Dall felt that Baron's can reach her goals, whether it is for her present or future club or for country. He said it will come down to working hard and performing well.

"I know she's still working back from her recovery from an ACL, but I have faith and hope in her," he said. "I've talked to her before. My job is to help guide her vessel to getting back to where she wants to be She has expressed playing in in Europe. She wants to be back on the national team. And my hope is to help her get there."

Even if Baron doesn't return to the Lady Lancers in 2022.

"If it helps her achieve her dream and her goals that's all you ask as a coach,” Dall said. “Can you take your players and help them achieve their dreams and goals?"