History. Pride. Tradition. Those are the three words coach Robb Gonnam uses to describe the girls’ soccer program at Newburyport — a program he has spearheaded for 21 years.
The Clippers won back-to-back Division 3 state championships in 2007 and 2008. After a four-year stretch in Division 2, they return to Division 3 this season and have what it takes to reclaim the state crown. Newburyport had 11 seniors, all four-year varsity players, on the 2008 championship team. This year, they have 10 seniors, all four-year varsity players.
The 13th-ranked Clippers are currently 11-0-1 and in first place in the Cape Ann League. With a 1-0 victory over Lynnfield on Saturday, they are just six wins away from finishing the regular season undefeated. But it’s no easy task when every team the Clippers face wants nothing more than to be the team to take them down.
“We are up against that type of mindset every game. We can’t afford to have a mediocre game because no matter who we play, that is their best game,” said Gonnam. “It’s great for us in terms of training but it is tough psychologically to maintain that level of excellence for 80 minutes every signal game.”
In Saturday’s game against Lynnfield (10-2-1), the Pioneers played it safe, packing their 18-yard box with all 11 players to eliminate any opportunity for Newburyport to have a clear shot on goal. And aside from a 25-yard free kick in the sixth minute that found the back of the net, the tactic worked.
“It was incredibly difficult,” said Gonnam. “That tends to happen a lot to us; teams play very defensive. We do have a lot of players that you need to worry about.”
The Clippers play what amounts to a four-striker offense. Jaycie Triandafilou, Maryam Moshrefi and Abbie Bresnahan play on the forward line together with Amy Sullivan positioned as a “target player” — also known as a high center mid or low forward.
“Amy is probably the best player in the league at taking the ball out of the air, possessing it, and then holding the ball under pressure,” said Gonnam. “At the end of last fall and then during club last spring all of the sudden it just clicked with her. She is clearly an all-league player.”
Triandafilou, a senior who is a two-year captain, is also a league all-star. She leads the team with 14 goals and three assists. Sophomore forward Bresnahan follows her with seven goals and eight assists and Sullivan, a senior, is the Clippers’ third-leading scorer with three goals and seven assists.
Newburyport’s success over the first half of the season is even more impressive when you consider that its roster has only been at full strength for the last two games. Since the preseason, there have been as many as seven players out with injuries. A 6-2 win over Amesbury last Monday was the first time that all 23 players were suited up and healthy.
That game saw the return of senior captain Carly Brand, who hadn’t played a game for the Clippers since 2011. She missed her entire junior season due to an ACL tear and the first 10 games this year because of an ankle injury. Brand scored in the first minute of the game and then scored again four minutes later.
“She was a Cape Ann League all-star as a freshman, and then this injury thing gave her all sorts of grief,” said Gonnam. “I was so happy when she got those two goals. It wasn’t so much that we got the goals, it was who got them.”
Seniors Aly Leahy, a center back, and goalkeeper Lilly Donovan are Newburyport’s two other captains this year. They are part of a 10-player senior class who were all on the varsity team when they were freshman, and eight of whom were starters.
As freshmen, the girls reached the Division 2 North quarterfinals before losing, 1-0, to Belmont. As sophomores, they came back and won the Division 2 North sectionals before bowing out in the state semifinals. And last year, as juniors, they lost an overtime heartbreaker in the Division 2 North semifinals, 1-0, to Belmont once again. Although they have not yet experienced a state championship run themselves, this senior class has seen what it’s like to accomplish that feat.
“All these current seniors were ball girls when that prior group won the two state championships,” said Gonnam. “They clearly know the history of the program, the pride of the program and the tradition of the program.
“It’s kind of the same tradition that drives [the University of] North Carolina — no one wants to be on the team that doesn’t succeed.”
As for the 13 underclassmen, all except one were on the team last year. The Clippers only graduated two seniors and freshman Amelia Aroschwitz is the only newcomer. Another person who has contributed to Newburyport’s success in recent years is Gonnam’s co-coach Kevin Sheridan.
He joined the program in 2009 as the freshman coach, became the junior varsity coach the following year, and then was brought up to varsity as Gonnam’s co-coach for the 2011 season.
“We wanted to give the kids more individual attention,” said Gonnam of his unique decision. “One person coaching 21 kids doesn’t do them justice.”
Despite having to split his coaching salary with Sheridan, Gonnam said, “It was an easy decision. It’s worth it to me to have extra help and to provide the kids extra training.”
But Gonnam knows that what he can do as a coach is limited to practices. When his players step on the field for a game, it is up to them to find a way to win. And when Newburyport has wavered this season, like going down 1-0 to last-place Manchester Essex, Gonnam and Sheridan turn the leadership over to their four captains.
“Our best teams have been led by the best captains over the years,” said Gonnam. “At the high school level, that’s what creates championship teams.”
Games to watch
Oliver Ames at Canton, Tuesday, 4:30 p.m. — No. 16 Canton takes on the twelfth-ranked Tigers. The teams tied, 2-2, earlier this season and are battling for first place in the Hockomock’s Davenport division.
Newburyport at Hamilton-Wenham, Wednesday, 3:45 p.m. — The Generals lost 3-0 to thirteenth-ranked Newburyport in September, but there is something to be said for homefield advantage.
Duxbury at Hingham, Thursday, 4 p.m. — Hingham is the only team to defeat No. 19 Duxbury this season, and the Green Dragons will be looking for revenge against their Patriot League rivals.
North Attleboro at Franklin, Friday, 3:30 p.m. — The sixth-ranked Panthers look to recalim first place in the Hockomock’s Kelly-Rex division with another win over No. 14 North Attleboro.
Cardinal Spellman at East Bridgewater, Saturday, 6 p.m. — In this non-league matchup, No. 8 East Bridgewater aims to avenge September’s 2-1 loss to third-ranked Cardinal Spellman.