Drew Smiley didn't mince words, and left no room for ambiguity, when describing the play of his keeper, Hector Gutierrez, following a March 28 matchup against Squalicum.
The Lynden boys' soccer coach said he was brilliant, simply brilliant.
The Lions fell 1-0, but Gutierrez frustrated a Storm squad Smiley said is possibly the best in the state. He defused treacherous situations, offering in return pained looks of confusion and bewilderment to opposing forwards.
That's the effect the junior keeper from Lynden typically has on most.
"I can't imagine we'll ever see another goalkeeper like him, at least in Lynden," Smiley said. "I've been here 21 years, and he's the best goalkeeper we've ever seen. Very special."
Smiley over that span could think of only one name - one keeper - he thought more talented that Gutierrez: former Bellingham goalie Auden Schilder. Schilder, who graduated last year and is attending the University of Washington on a soccer scholarship, is rare company, and given Gutierrez's ability, it's company he belongs in.
And Lynden's future may very well depend on the play of its captain and netminder.
The Lions currently sit on the outside looking in at the 2A playoff picture, and as Smiley pointed out to his players Wednesday, they can only sustain one more loss this season if they hope to stay in the playoff hunt.
Luckily, Lynden's youth in the backline is afforded more mistakes than most with Gutierrez in net, and Lynden's coaching staff plays to that.
"We can let people serve into the box because he's such a great goalkeeper," Smiley said. "You look at some of the other goalkeepers in the league and the other teams, they don't want anything coming into their box because their goalkeepers can't handle it, and it's a lottery what happens in there. With him, you can give things to the other team and secure other areas of the field and not get punished."
The learning curve for the tall, rangy Gutierrez has been progressive. Having not played soccer much until seventh grade, he quickly showed the talent and mindfulness in net Smiley salivated over when he coached him in middle school. Gutierrez was, in all estimation, being groomed to take over the starting role his freshman year, and the junior has started every game since that point for Lynden.
Gutierrez's affinity in goal isn't much of a surprise given his older brother, Luis Gutierrez, manned the net for the Lions' 2010-11 state championship team. Hector traveled with the team, watching his brother reach the pinnacle of the high school game, forming with it his aspiration of doing the same.
"I was in the locker room right before the state championship game. It was quiet. Dead silence," Hector remembered. "Joe (Gonzales) and Drew were always talking. 'This is what you guys have been working for this whole year. Here's the game. Here's the dance floor.' I really want to get to that stage."
Hector isn't flawless, Smiley said, as goalies tend not to peak until their late 20's. What has become a struggle for Gutierrez is trying to do too much - trying to compensate so greatly for his team's inexperience that he's not playing within himself. That was the case in Lynden's 5-2 loss to Burlington-Edison on Tuesday, April 8, when Gutierrez allowed two near-post goals, something both he and Smiley should never happen.
His eventual progression will be judged on his ability to captain the defense in such a way he isn't forced to make save upon save, Smiley said.
"They say the best goalkeepers are the ones that never have to make a save," Smiley said, "so the next part of his development is getting to the point where he has the defense so organized and doing what they want where he's actually preventing shots from occurring, as opposed to reacting."
Gutierrez knows his voice has got to be more prominent. He said breaking through to his defenders, gaining their attention mid-game is something he's focused on, and there are glimpses he's truly had grasp of that. Last year against Squalicum in a 3-1 win on March 22, 2013, was such a case.
"He's absolutely amazing against Squalicum," Smiley said. "Joe McAuliffe (Squalicum's coach) just laughs. It's nothing he can do. ... It's just Hector is on fire."
In one particular instance, a cross sent across the width of the net to the Storm's Arne Peterson led to a diving save by Gutierrez. It's that tough-minded presence Gutierrez wants his opponents to be aware of.
"I just want to take the ball away from them," he said. "Make sure they know I'm here and I'm going to stop the ball."
Reach Alex Bigelow at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-715-2238. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for other Whatcom County sports updates.