MADAWASKA, Maine — Relatively few sports fans statewide may have heard of Ian Lee, but those who follow soccer closely in the Saint John Valley aren’t at all surprised by his offensive prowess.
They’ve been watching the Madawaska High School star get the best of goalies throughout northern Maine since he first began kicking the ball, either in the back yard with older brother Jon or in recreation department matches he began playing as a second-grader.
He’s always had a knack for it,” said Dean Gendreau, the town’s recreation director and for the last three years head coach of the Madawaska boys varsity soccer team.
“He was faster than everybody on the field back then, and he’s still very, very fast. He’s always been able to score, he’s always been able to do whatever he needed to do to score, and he really hasn’t changed that way at all.”
Indeed, a decade later Lee not only is still scoring goals at a prolific rate, but at a level never seen before in the state’s schoolboy soccer ranks.
With the first of two goals he scored Friday during a 5-1 victory over visiting Van Buren, the Owls’ senior striker became the boys’ state high school record holder for career goals scored, surpassing the 107 amassed by Bradley Wilcox of Bangor Christian between 2008 and 2011.
“The past month or really the past two months it’s been the topic of pretty much every conversation,” said Lee before he broke the record, which now is 109 and counting. “(It’s) good to finally reach it, because it’s always been kind of an awkward conversation.”
Lee is just the fourth Maine schoolboy player to surpass 100 career goals, according to records maintained by the Maine Soccer Coaches Association. Former Major League Soccer player Roger Levesque of Falmouth totaled 106 goals between 1995 and 1998, while Scott Johnson of Georges Valley of Thomaston had 105 between 1978 and 1981.
Shelby Pickering of Lee Academy is Maine’s overall career goal-scoring leader, totaling 178 for the Pandas’ girls squad between 2001 and 2004.
“I probably started thinking about it halfway through last year,” said the 18-year-old Lee. “At that point of my junior season I had about 20 goals (that year), and I started thinking if I could keep it up I’d have a shot and it just fell into place.
“I figured I probably couldn’t get a thousand points in basketball, so a hundred goals in soccer would be a pretty good record to have.”
Lee finished the 2012 season with 41 goals, tied for the second-best single-season total among Maine boys soccer players behind Wilcox’s 44 in 2010. Combined with the 11 goals he scored as a freshman and the 37 he tallied a year later, he began this year with 89, and short of being sidelined by injury the career record seemed inevitable to become Lee’s so long as he wasn’t too unselfish.
“His freshman and sophomore years sometimes he was anxious to score and sometimes wasn’t as productive as he could have been,” said Gendreau. “Now he’s scoring a lot more, but a lot of the other guys are scoring, too.”
“Sometimes now I think he looks for that great pass a little too much at times, but he really catches people off guard that way.”
And it’s all been done while routinely being marked by one, two or even three defenders at a time.
“Ian really alters the game for a lot of teams,” said Gendreau.
The 5-foot-7-inch Lee, who also plays basketball and tennis at Madawaska, doesn’t strike an imposing physical presence on the soccer pitch — until he starts moving.
“He has speed like we’ve never had here,” said Ben Sirois, who before becoming principal of Madawaska Elementary School this year was an elementary school teacher for 14 years. Sirois watched Lee come up through the ranks and coached him during his freshman year of high school. “His touch with the ball is so, so pure. He’s got that little extra something you just don’t see that often.
“He’s not just a great scorer, but he’s a great soccer player, and he’s the type of kid that if he had played fullback for four years he’d be the best fullback. If he had played in goal for four years he’d be the best goalkeeper. And if you put him on a football field I think he’d have been a great player in that sport, too.”
Lee’s development as a soccer player was aided by two years on a New Brunswick provincial team — the son of Dave and Janice Lee, his mother was born in Canada so Lee has dual citizenship.
Lee attended an open tryout in Moncton, New Brunswick, after his sophomore soccer season and made the 18-player squad otherwise comprised of the top players throughout the province.
“It was an older team and he was the youngest kid,” said Gendreau, “but it wasn’t long before he was right up there with the top strikers on the team.”
Lee, whose primary initial motive to try out for the provincial squad was a chance to play in some of the indoor soccer facilities across the border, now credits those experiences with helping him become comfortable with a more physical style of play and enhancing his view of the game from his position on the field.
“The players are bigger, and It’s different playing there,” said Lee. “The coach is an ex-player in Scotland, and when you send the ball flank to flank you get a pat on the back for doing that instead of always trying to go straight forward.
“Playing that way really helps open up everything vision-wise, because if you see the field better you can see runs better and you can see your teammates better.”
Aiding that vision this season is familiarity with his teammates. Lee is one of 14 seniors and juniors on the current Madawaska roster, which entered Tuesday’s major test at home against Caribou with a 7-0 record and outscoring its opposition by a combined 43-4.
Many on the current Owls’ roster have been teammates and friends since dominating the Aroostook County rec department travel-team ranks during their elementary school days.
“He’s played with these kids for a while now so he knows where everybody’s going to be,” said Gendreau. “He sees all the angles for through balls and he’ll pass it right where his teammates need it.”
With still half of the 2013 regular season remaining — split up by the annual two-week potato harvest break that leaves the Owls without a match from Sept. 19 to Oct. 10 — Lee is poised to create some serious separation between his final individual goal-scoring total and those who preceded him.
The high honors student also is looking forward to college, though he isn’t 100 percent certain if soccer will be part of that future.
“It’s a new-found interest,” said Lee. “Last year I wasn’t so sure I even wanted to play soccer in college.”
But even that’s not his most immediate concern.
Madawaska last won an Eastern Maine Class C championship in 2007 but has come agonizingly close during each of Lee’s first three seasons.
The Owls have reached the regional semifinals each of the last three years only to be ousted each time, first by Orono in 2010 and for the last two seasons by a Houlton club that went on to win back-to-back EM titles and the 2012 Class C state crown.
This year’s club is the most veteran of Lee’s four Madawaska squads, and with that added experience the Owls hope will come added success — maybe even the program’s first state championship.
“We’re expecting big things,” he said.