Bangor High School senior midfielder Sophia Mullins ran with the bulls and had a chance to attend a game featuring Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, who has won the Ballon d’Or Award — given to the world’s best soccer player — a record six times.
It was an eventful junior year for Mullins as she attended the Global Premier Soccer International Academy in Valencia, Spain, despite returning home in January and finishing her classes online.
She said it was a memorable and beneficial experience but it also didn’t meet up to expectations in some areas.
For instance, she was one of only two players on her academy team’s roster when she had been told there would be at least nine and they would fill out the roster with local girls.
“That never ended up happening and the local girls were already playing for club teams,” Mullins explained.
You had to be 18 to gain a license which would have placed her with a highly-competitive team. But she was only 16.
However, it did mean that she and Chicago native Olivera Pandev, the other GPS Academy player, did spend a valuable hour to an hour and a half each day with academy coach Sergi Llobet getting what amounted to individualized training.
“He knew a lot about the game. I think very highly of him,” Mullins said.
They would have breakfast and then spend time with Llobet before having lunch and attending school, online, from 3 to 7 p.m.
She also got hooked up with a local team, Rumbo Football Club, and would practice with them from 8 to 10 p.m. She occasionally trained with a team in Valencia.
But she had limited game experience as most of her game competition involved playing for different teams with players ranging in age from 16 to 42. They were more like organized pick-up contests.
“I haven’t played in a competitive soccer match [with an established team] since November,” she said.
But the schooling was valuable and she has returned to Bangor High School “with a lot more confidence including a lot more confidence on the ball. I’ve become much more precise but there is still obviously a lot of room for improvement. I am working as hard as I can to better myself as a player.”
Mullins was a two-year starter at Bangor High before leaving.
Because she attended the academy, she received tickets to watch local team Levante play in the Spanish top league (La Liga). So she had a chance to watch Messi.
“I was sitting in the second row. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. Everyone goes to the games. There are parades. And Levante upset Barcelona,” said Mullins, who is a fan of Barcelona rival Real Madrid.
She invited a friend of hers to run with the bulls, a Spanish tradition, although it turned out to be only one bull. There was a space, protected by jail-like bars, which enabled them to evade the bull as it ran by.
“It was an adrenaline rush,” she said.
Mullins decided not to go back to Spain after returning to collect her stuff in January because it just wasn’t fulfilling enough to do so. It turned out to be an even wiser decision with the COVID-19 pandemic taking hold in March.
“Although it wasn’t the experience I had hoped for, a lot of positives came out of it,” she said.
“I enjoyed the overall experience. Everybody should study abroad at some point in their lives. I grew as a person and as a player,” she said.
She has spent some time playing with the River City soccer club’s Under-19 boys team which taught her to “play quicker.”
She is enjoying being reunited with her Bangor High teammates and likes playing for second-year head coach Andrew Varisco.
“I feel good about the season. We’re going to be a real close-knit group on the field and in our personal lives,” said Mullins, who is hoping to play in college.
Varisco said Mullins had been a good addition to the team.
“She looks good. She has come back with confidence, she plays very hard and has very good skills. She can play anywhere on the field,” Varqisco said. “The communication we have had has been very mature. She and the other seniors provide great leadership. I’m glad she is back with us.”
Bangor opens against in-town rival John Bapst on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Bangor High.