By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Kevin McInnis
High school can be difficult enough when everything goes according to plan. Wouldn’t life be wonderful if every prep athlete was a star player, experiencing the highs of athletic success every time she took the field?
Seven exemplary seniors on the 2017 Class 5A state champion girls soccer team at Maple Mountain High School concluded their high school experience with a very different perspective of what constitutes individual success. Amy Williamson, Madison Webster, Amber Messick, Aubrey Mitton, Kristalyn Lockwood, Hannah Taylor and Samantha Wiscombe are outstanding players who saw playing time dry up as first-year coach Jeff Lewis took over the Golden Eagle girls program.
“Where this stems from is we’re a deep team,” Lewis said. “Each position, we’re two or three deep, which is really nice because when you have injuries or somebody plays a different style, it allows us to keep whoever’s playing the best that day.”
The abundance of talented players created a situation in which these seven, who had played significant minutes in prior seasons, saw limited time on the pitch during their senior year. We’re conditioned to believe that it doesn’t work that way, but sometimes it does.
“We kept more people for our program than most surrounding schools had even try out,” Lewis said. “These (seven) girls, they play top level club soccer. Two of them, I’m actually in contact with colleges that still want them to go and play for them. It’s not that they’re poor players, it’s that there’s so much depth on our roster.
“Every coach has a different style, every coach has a different thing they’re looking for in players. They’re not less than the other players, just the style that I’m looking for is what I find in different players and that’s where the play time is chosen from.”
Sticking With It
Finding themselves on the bench for their senior year provided ample reason for each of these seven to consider other uses for the time they spend training with the soccer team. Each has her own reasons for sticking around, but for most of them, it starts with relationships.
“The reason that I’ve been able to stay is because of all these girls right here, all these seniors, the examples they are to me,” Wiscombe said. “There’s been a good amount of time where I’ve wanted to just stop coming, but because these girls were here and because we were able to be together and it was our last year playing high school soccer, it kept me coming back.”
“Having my teammates stay here as well, that’s made it easier, but I think if they would have all left, I think I would have stayed, at least tried,” Williamson said. “My parents have taught me that when you start something, you finish and that’s what I’m doing. I committed to be on this team, and I come in here and I didn’t expect it to be like this exactly, I’m still going to finish, no matter what.”
Each of these young women talks about the things this experience has taught them, and most of it goes beyond what happens on the soccer field. They cherish the friendships they’ve built this year in particular.
“I didn’t make the team last year and that was pretty rough, but it’s been a lot better this year,” Lockwood said. “I’ve worked really hard to come to everything this summer to try to make the team this year, and I’ve loved it this year because I’ve gotten to play with my friends and I’ve gotten to play soccer and that’s why I’m here.”
“This year has been a challenge,” Wiscombe said. “I started out playing a lot of varsity, being super involved with the soccer, and this year to go to really not playing at all, it’s been hard. Soccer’s been my whole life, but it’s kind of shifted. My focus has become more on the girls around me because these girls are my everything, they’re my greatest friends and I wouldn’t give that up just because I have to sit on the bench a couple of times.”
“My experience has been pretty good,” Messick added. “I played a lot of varsity in past years, just not as much this year. These girls have become some of my best friends and I’m grateful for my experience. For me, with all these girls, I look up to them so much, and I think they have taught me lessons that go beyond soccer, and that’s what high school soccer is really all about. It’s more that soccer, it’s about building relationships and learning about things beyond soccer to help you be prepared for real life.
Messick is one a good example of another way in which this group of seven has influenced this state championship program. Though her playing time has been limited, she is one of the team’s captains.
“Here’s a girl that doesn’t play, but every game she’s pumping up the girls, every day she’s reaching out to the girls that struggle,” Lewis said. “And it’s not just Amber. Each of those girls, I’ve seen them go talk to girls and pick up girls that are struggling and encourage girls. We have one of the most supportive benches in the region, that I’ve seen, and it’s because those girls realize, ‘I can make the girls on the field better by being supportive leaders on the sideline.’
“We have some young players. We start a lot of 10th graders, we have a couple of ninth graders on the varsity team, and those girls, they play good soccer, but it’s new for them to figure out the high school thing and it’s hard for some of those ‘freshies’ to fit in. These seniors make it so integral. They just bring them into the program and make them feel welcome, even though they’re the ones competing for play time.”
A Team Game
Not to mention the high level of competition they bring to training sessions. They might not be seeing action on game day, but these girls bring it when they run 11-on-11 at practice.
“The way we kind of deal with it is we try to show them their importance to the program,” Lewis said. “Some of them have earned playing time, so it creates a competitiveness at training. Every training, starters, non-starters, everybody is fighting for every ounce of time, so our sessions are actually sometimes more intense than real games. The struggle of it was actually early when they didn’t believe in that role, but I think that as we found success, the seniors believe in that role and realize how important they are to our program.”
And these seniors have embraced the role of helping their teammates become better players, more prepared for opponents. They do all they can to make scrimmages during training sessions intense. They might not see the pitch much against other schools, but they end up having two or three game days a week, and they’re all home games.
“I feel like we’ve made them better,” Mitton said. “I feel like if you were to come and watch one of our practices and you didn’t know anything about our team, you wouldn’t be able to tell who was the starters and who wasn’t. There’s not a distinct difference. We’re all really good. That’s what I like about practices is it’s always a new challenge and we’re all challenging each other, making each other better. We all have our different skill set, but when it comes down to it, when you look at it, you can’t tell who’s starting and who isn’t.”
A lifetime of playing the game they love doesn’t go away just because things get rough in the playing time department.
“I think for me, I really like soccer and I’ve been playing it since I was really little and I don’t want to give that up,” Lockwood said. “I also think we call come out here because we really do love the girls and we want to make them better, and I think us practicing against them makes them better. That’s why I do it.”
This group proves that leaders come in all kinds of different packages. Players who have a different role within the team are not just enduring a learning experience, they are able to give something back as they endure it well.
“This year’s definitely been different than years in the past, just because we have a new coach and that’s what it should be like, with change and all,” Webster said. “I think that it’s been harder for some of us, with that change. Overall, I think it’s definitely taught us lessons. Even though we haven’t been getting much playing time, we’ve still been able to learn and grow and be leaders on and off the field.”
Words of Advice
When asked what she would share with someone struggling in a similar situation, where things aren’t working out in the way you might expect, each of these seven seniors looked at her situation in a unique way.
Taylor pointed to the fact that we never know what’s coming around the next corner.
“I feel like they should keep going and keep trying,” she said. “They should work hard and keep doing what they’re doing because you never know what’s going to happen. You shouldn’t really give up just because of lack of playing time. Yea, it does suck, but you can earn your way, you can make so many new friends.”
Wiscombe advises a focus on what’s really important.
“My advice is to figure out what matters to you,” she said. “Soccer doesn’t last forever, but the relationships we make do last forever.”
From Lockwood comes a reminder that no one is the first or last to go down this path.
“Keep going because it is tough,” she said. “We feel like we’re the only ones that are feeling this way, but there’s a lot of people that are feeling this way and if you stand out by trying your hardest at practice and having a positive attitude, I feel like your coaches will notice.”
The little things are what gives Mitton her strength.
“Sometimes in life, no matter how hard you work, no matter how good you are at something, it won’t always pay off,” she said. “You can still be happy about it and find the happiness in your little successes. I’ll have a good day at practice and I’ll be happy with myself even though I don’t play the next game. My advice would be to just keep working hard and find that happiness.”
Messick knows that lessons learned will last a lifetime.
“My advice would be just bring it every day,” she said. “I know talking to some of the starters, they told me that I work hard and I think that by me working hard that makes the team better, and ultimately, the team is what matters. If we win state, we’re all going to be state champions. Even though the situation has been hard, I say just work hard every day, it teaches you persistence and to never give up, and I think that’s important.”
Webster knows she and her fellow seniors took the harder, better road.
“I think it says a lot about these girls and myself for staying on this team because we could have taken the easy way out and given up, but we didn’t,” she said. “We decided to stay and work through this hard time and even though it has been one of the hardest things that I personally have had to do, I think one of the biggest things is the lessons I’ve been able to learn that I can carry with me the rest of my life, like hard work and that dedication to doing what you love.
And Williamson acknowledges that failure is not found in losing out on playing time. It’s about how you handle the situation.
“Just keep going because I think that if you quit, I think you fail more than if you stay on and don’t get that playing time you want,” she said. “If I would have quit at the beginning, I would have regretted it throughout the whole year and I would have felt so guilty. As a person, I’ve learned to deal with people, I’ve learned to understand that sometimes even when you do work your hardest and come every day, you’re not going to always get what you want out of it, but it will make you better for other situations in life.”
When junior Brynlie Ivie buried her shot in Round 6 of the penalty kick shootout that concluded the 5A title game, followed by a Timpanogos miss, the Golden Eagles were state champions. For these seven special seniors, there is another award already earned, the lesson of life, that while there are certainly things we can’t control, the way we respond to adversity is always our choice.
“It reminds me of one of my favorite sayings that comes from a good motivational speaker,” Lewis said. “‘Pain is temporary, but quitting is forever.’ These girls have dealt with the pain of being in the program, they’ve dealt with the pain of not getting the playing time, but not one of them has ever quit.”