When Samantha Brownell tried out for the Central High School varsity girls soccer team her freshman year, she never thought about being a goalkeeper. She had never played the position.
“But the varsity coach (John Tabor) thought I’d be a good goalie,” said Brownell. “So I became the starting goalie for the JV team.
“I liked it right off, but it was hard to learn at first because I had never done it before.”
Brownell said she benefited from the fact the JV coach, Keri Gray, was a former goalkeeper.
She started for the varsity the next three years and she saved her best for last, making 15 saves — including four off breakaways — in last Saturday’s 2-1 win over St. Dominic’s of Auburn in the state Class C final that gave the Corinth-based school its first state schoolgirl soccer title.
That was after she made 14 saves on 29 shots and scored the winning goal in the second series of penalty kicks in the 4-3 win over Orono in the Eastern Maine title game, stopped four shots in the 3-1 win over Madawaska in the semifinals and made 10 saves in the 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Bucksport.
“She really stepped up, big-time, in the playoffs,” said Central junior striker and leading scorer Max McHugh. “She’s the most dependable goalie in Class C.”
McHugh said Brownell’s four breakaway saves in the state championship game are a reflection of “her confidence in her decision-making.”
“I finally trusted myself to do what I needed to do,” said Brownell, who sprinted off her line to smother the shots. “My decision-making wasn’t great last year. That’s something I worked on this year. Coach (Mike McHugh) emphasized that I needed to come off my line (on breakaways).”
“She was incredible,” said coach McHugh.
The Red Devils allowed one goal or less in 16 of their 18 games en route to their 17-0-1 mark.
Brownell said she was also helped by the fact she faced players like 39-goal scorer McHugh, 17-goal scorers Taylor Robichaud and Siglia Pinkham and 12-goal scorer Brianna Speed in practice every day.
“That was very valuable,” said Brownell. “We have a lot of good shooters on our team and we didn’t face a lot of competition during the regular season.”
Central’s evolution into a soccer power has occurred in a short space of time.
McHugh took over the job after a two-win season in 2008.
They went 20-7-1 over the next two seasons only to be ousted in the semifinals by Fort Kent each year.
“When I took over, you’d hear the fans say ‘Boot it, boot it,’” said McHugh, referring to the direct boot-and-scoot brand of soccer. “But I taught them a new (style), a possession game.”
They don’t have great numbers. There were only 25 girls between the varsity and JV programs, so a lot of girls played both.
“But we do have athletes and these girls played with a lot of heart and determination and had a will to win,” said Mike McHugh.
Max McHugh said their heart and determination was best exhibited in their ability to win “50-50 balls all over the field.”
Even though the state game was played a week ago, Max McHugh said it still hasn’t completely sunk in.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s unreal. I still don’t believe it,” said McHugh, who admitted that they were nervous in the first half and they weren’t used to the physical style of play employed by St. Dom’s, who had taken a 1-0 lead into the intermission.
“But Dad gave us a good talk at halftime and we came out strong in the second half. We knew we had to step it up,” said McHugh, who scored the game-winner off a precise through-ball by Speed in the second overtime.
“We worked on give-and-gos all year and Brianna served the ball on a platter to me,” said McHugh, who, with the rest of her teammates, received a firetruck escort and a rousing reception at the school after the triumph.
“We’ve worked our tails off,” said Max McHugh. “We may not have had the most skill, but we do have a lot of heart and that was a contributing factor in pushing through. No one thought a little school in Corinth, Maine, could bring it home. But we did.”