ROCKPORT — Undaunted by formidable competition, the Camden Hills Regional High School girls soccer team played an extraordinary stretch of games this past fall, lifting the school to 22nd in a national ranking ladder, and surpassing their own expectations in carrying the Gold Soccer Ball back to the Midcoast for the fourth consecutive year. They did it for the love of the game, and because, in the words of their coach, “they embrace a challenge.”
But besides their grit and determination, there was one more essential factor that pushed this team to its highest level of play: They simply had each other’s back, and no matter the player, no matter the position, each girl, from senior to freshman, mattered.
“This year, everybody was really strong,” said senior Kristina Kelly, one of the three co-captains. “And, regardless of whether the player was as strong as they looked, they always had help around them.”
“Everybody feels like they have a place,” said Junior Anya Babb-Brott, who is in line to help lead the team in Fall 2020. “Everybody feels they make a difference on the team.”
Hometown fans filled the stands at Hampden Academy for that Nov. 9 Class A state playoff game, where the red-jerseyed Windjammers met the white-jerseyed Red Storm, from Scarborough High School. They were familiar opponents, having battled each other for the past two years for the state’s Gold Soccer Ball. (In 2018, Camden Hills prevailed with a score of 1-0; and in 2017, 3-2).
And Camden Hills did not disappoint, capping the 2019 showdown 2-1, as the crowd swelled with pride. The Windjammers had scored twice in the first 14 minutes of the game, and held the line as they played under the lights, and temperatures dipped to 17 degrees Fahrenheit.
The team, now famous in Maine for its assertive offense, played at its peak for months, ending the season with a 65-game winning streak dating back to 2016. Strategy, tactics and incredible spontaneous plays filled their games. And, there was that intentional goal set by the three captains late in summer, that all players, no matter the age or level of game, had an important role to play.
Vin Contento, whose daughter Caroline plays defense, said that philosophy was evident through the season. Contento is the team’s unofficial photographer and captured much of the intensity and joy on the field with his camera.
“Everyone played a specific part and role, and everyone made sure that they did what they were supposed to do, whether they were an everyday starter or coming into the game off the bench,” he said. “The coaches are responsible for that; Meredith [Messer] and Josh [Mahar] always had the team ready to play. They all get along well because they genuinely like each other, they care about each other, and because of that they all trust each other.”
Juniors Anya Babb-Brott and Lexi Heidorn, along with three seniors, Emie Wood, Ella Pierce and Kristina Kelly, gathered Nov. 18 with Coach Meredith Messer, in Messer’s math classroom, one week after the winning game. Still elated, they were likewise reflecting on what contributed to their overall success.
In the weeks leading up to the meeting in Messer’s classroom, Messer had been named 2018-19 National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations’ girls soccer Coach of the Year for the state of Maine and inducted into the Midcoast Sports Hall of Fame.
Her team had also been resting in the Super 25 rankings, as compiled by United Soccer Coaches in coordination with USA TODAY High School Sports. The ranking is based on results from the current season, quality of players and strength of schedule, and the girls soccer team was making history for the high school and Maine, by being on the list.
But, the athletes were also gearing up for winter sports, and the first day of practice was that afternoon.
Kristina Kelly, the team’s top scorer, was heading for the first practice of wrestling, while Wood was going to swimming practice.
They were ready for new experiences, and grateful for the exuberant end of their soccer season. (Not their career, however, as the seniors and juniors said they would likely play soccer to some degree, whether at Central Connecticut State, Wellesley or other schools they will attend. The game is forever in their blood, they all agreed).
As they talked about the season, the girls circled back time and again to their collective season goals. Those intentions, personal and common, were articulated in late August, and reinforced as they fell into long practices, on 5K runs that stretched into 6.5K runs, or during team meetings.
What was their secret?
“There are no secrets,” said Heidorn.
“Well.... there are some,” cautioned Coach Messer, grinning at the players.
Much of their team-building was common to high school sports: They got together and talked, and talked. They spent a few days at Maine Maritime Academy with other teams, scrimmaging and producing evening skits. They camped out, scrounging for firewood and pitching tents. They strengthened their legs running through Camden on a scavenger hunt. They excelled at their foot-fire routine, lining up on the edge of the field, pounding their cleats and screaming.
By late summer, it was time to get serious. Three days of tryouts began Aug. 19, and the team took shape, “starting with who we thought was ready,” said Messer. With Assistant Coach Mahar, they began training with 15 players, one of the smallest groups in some time, said Messer. The team then grew to 21.
The senior captains met for the dinner the night before tryouts with Messer. They discussed intentions, one of them being to make sure, “everyone was comfortable, since we were so uncomfortable our freshmen year,” said Kelly.
She remembered her first weeks on the varsity team.
“Ella, Kayla and I were on varsity our freshmen year, which was really challenging,” said Kelly. “I was always uncomfortable when I was playing, which did not help at all.”
The captains decided they would incorporate new traditions to encourage younger players. They parceled out “lifesaver moments,” post-game breakdowns of plays or tactics made by a teammate that the captains noticed. It was a way of validating each player’s position and game participation.
“In years past, we have had a ‘line of weakness,’ but this year, we were all truly one team and played together,” said Kelly. “And we moved so well together.”
“This team was very close,” said Messer, drifting back to late summer. “They seemed like a family before we stepped onto the field.”
In fact, some players on the past champion teams were sisters, such as the Contentos (Caroline and Sarah), Gutheinzes (Eve and Isabelle) and Kruls (Kassie and Kaylyn).
Emie Wood and Ella Pierce grew up playing since first grade, and most Windjammers grew up playing in Hope, Appleton, Lincolnville, Camden and Rockport. The five towns come together at the high school and each player brings a collective Midcoast familiarity with each other.
“It was fun to watch underclassmen step up,” said Wood. “Some filled important roles this year and it was fun to see them grow and become more confident.”
“I think our team this year was a lot closer,” said Babb-Brott. “We don’t get mad at each other, and we don’t tear each other down. It’s a supportive environment and that’s what helps us grow and become successful.”
“The upperclassmen this year strived for that inclusiveness and equality between every player, no matter how much they played, or what grade they were in,” said Heidorn.
“We laugh at each other a lot,” said Pierce. “And, we are kind to each other.”
“Traditions encourage and foster a place of being, like ‘you are welcome here and this is where you have an opportunity to come and be who you are,” said Messer.
She also pointed out that this particular team faced adversity midway through the season, including injuries.
“My impression of the team is that they didn’t take anything for granted this year,” said Contento, of his daughter’s team. “They were very business-like in how they played.”
He said they all knew how difficult it would be to shoot for a fourth championship.
“ I don’t know if they ever talked about the pressure, but if they felt the pressure, they really dealt with it well and didn’t show it,” he said. “They took it one game at a time, not thinking too far ahead, and got to work every game. It was a really fun season to watch this team.”
Nor were they afraid of failing.
Sometimes, teams take on their own personalities, and this one was, “I’m going to make it happen,” said Messer.
“You knew we had it in us,” Heidorn said to Messer. “That edge, we had just yet to bring it out. It made us realize we wanted it really bad and we just had to really work at it.”
“If there’s one thing these guys do really well, is they embrace a challenge,” said Messer. “If they have to score off a header, or make six passes before they score again, they are not afraid to fail first.”
Some of the players look up to Megan Rapinoe, who was captain of the U.S. women's soccer team when it swept to a Women’s World Cup victory in July 2019.
Babb-Brott had attended a U.S. women’s soccer team game.
“They are incredible inspirations,” she said. “[Rapinoe] is so outspoken and she uses her amazing abilities on the field to strengthen her arguments that she uses off the field. I’m inspired to believe in our team and in myself.”
The U.S. women’s soccer team philosophy of never giving up mirrors that of Camden Hills, as do the team dynamics. Camden Hills players hear other high school teams on the field, and know how players can take out their frustrations on teammates.
“In tough situations, we are calm and don’t tear each other down,” said Heidorn.
They love the game for the competition, and they marvel at what humans are capable of doing with their bodies.
“It is incredible what we are doing with our feet,” said Heidorn.
Some of their mothers never got to play soccer, and they wished they could have, watching their daughters fly down the field.
The parents are rightfully proud.
“From my viewpoint as a parent, there is no egos, no jealousy, and no drama,” said Contento. “They are friends, some of them best friends, and they all root for each other. Because of this they played very well together.”
While the U.S. women’s soccer team inspired a generation of players, the Camden Hills girls soccer team likewise inspires.
“There aren’t that many kids who can experience a state championship in any sport, let alone what these [players] have experienced together,” said Messer. “They are inspiring younger kids to continue that level of of play.”
And this team has advice for younger players: Work hard, improve, expect to fail, get up and try again. Laugh and be kind to each other. And trust your team.