SCOREBOARD 10-11-2009 The Miracle of McNair girls’ soccerCougars remain undefeated in finest season ever

The McNair Academic High School girls’ soccer program has been in existence for a few years now, ever since the veteran soccer coach John Barulich transferred from coaching the boys at the downtown Jersey City school to initiating the girls’ program.
But since the program began a little more than a decade ago, the Cougars have only enjoyed modest success, like last year, when new coach John Hughes guided the team to an 11-8 mark.
However, for some reason, Hughes just knew that better days were coming for the Cougars.
“I think last year we absolutely started to get over the hump,” Hughes said. “We beat some teams that we always lost to. We were gradually getting better.”
But the players on the McNair Academic roster took it a step further.
“We played in a summer league in Kearny together and did well there,” Hughes said. “When practice began, we would go like for four or five hours, from August through Labor Day. It was a big commitment from the kids.”
Hughes also noticed another big change. Many of his players have decided to play soccer all year round.
“We have a nice group of girls who now play soccer all year,” Hughes said. “They play for different travel teams and clubs and we’re seeing that commitment to the sport throughout the entire year. It just keeps going.”
Maybe in the past, soccer was a recreational activity at McNair. Not downplaying at all what Barulich did as the coach, because without him, there wouldn’t even be a girls’ soccer program at the school.
But a small Group I school like McNair Academic – with its strict academic policies and programs – needs to have all of its students active in several extracurricular activities. It’s very hard for a school like McNair have its student/athletes focus on just one sport.
“Our kids are involved in a lot of other things,” Hughes said. “They have a lot on their academic plates. Their schedules are tremendously full. They’re not just soccer players first. It makes things tremendously challenging, in putting a competitive team together. The girls really put a lot into it. But once they buy into it, they’re into it and it makes things really easier.”
Before the 2009 season began, Hughes wanted to see where his team stood, so he scheduled some tougher opponents for the preseason scrimmages.
“I think it gave us a better idea if we were going to be able to compete in the upper echelon in the county,” Hughes said. “It let them believe in themselves a little. They were always among the hardest working teams around, but it became more meaningful if we could compete.”
With the commitment from the girls and the new-found confidence, the Cougars were ready to take on the world this season. But it’s safe to say that even Hughes didn’t expect what has transpired.
The Cougars hit the home stretch of the regular season with an undefeated record. After battling perennial favorite Holy Family to a 2-2 tie Tuesday night, the Cougars now own a gaudy 9-0-1 record, easily the best start in the program’s history.
“We all talked about the best start,” said Hughes, who was an assistant to Barulich for five seasons before taking over last year. “But our eyes are on having the best finish as well.”
Hughes said that the team has shown incredible scoring balance thus far.
“We’re getting contributions from all over the field,” Hughes said. “That’s been the key to our success.”
Another key to the team’s success is that three of the main players all come from the same family, namely junior goalkeeper Brittany Miller and her younger sisters, twins Brooke and Briana, who are sophomores.
The eldest Miller sister just recently returned to action after being injured in the first game of the season. She earned All-County honors last season. Freshman Bena Nyang-Au, who had no prior soccer experience, was the goalkeeper in the eldest Miller’s absence.
“Bena stepped up and held down the fort,” Hughes said.
The team’s sweeper is senior Sarah Levine
“Sarah is like the heart and soul of the team,” Hughes said. “She’s been starting for us for four years and she’s paid her dues. She’s been the biggest catalyst for others buying into the program.”
Senior Victoria Swift is the Cougars’ stopper. Swift, who is also a standout catcher in the spring for the McNair softball team, has developed into a good soccer player.
“She brings that tough softball mentality to soccer,” Hughes said. “She’s more likely to run right through you.”
Others on the backline include junior Victoria Bell and sophomore Geomara Cando. Cando has become the starter ever since Ashley Mendoza went down with a serious knee injury. The senior Mendoza will miss the remainder of the season.
Senior Marina Conlin is the team’s center midfielder. Conlin is also versatile and can move back to the defensive line if needed.
Junior Georgia Hilmer, who scored the game-tying goal against Holy Family last Tuesday night, is another solid midfielder, along with sophomore Katie Welles and Brooke Miller.
The forward line consists of Briana Miller, who is the team’s leading scorer, and junior Jessica Melendez, who had a recent four-goal outburst against Hoboken.
“Both of our forwards are equally dangerous,” Hughes said. “I think our forwards are our greatest strength. They can both finish with both feet and that’s pretty rare.”
What’s also rare is the unbeaten start.
“I think we decided early on to treat every game either as an obstacle or an opportunity,” Hughes said. “Well, now that we’ve won so much, each game is an opportunity to do more. It’s really been indescribable. The team is showing a lot of heart and they’ve done so much already. It’s a tremendous feeling. John Barulich set the foundation for this when we had nothing here. Now, we’re taking it to another level.”
And perhaps, when the Cougars are actually challenging for a Hudson County title this year, then others will take them as a serious threat. Any team that goes the first 10 games without a setback deserves legitimacy as a force to be reckoned with. It might have taken some time, but the McNair Academic girls’ soccer program is certainly for real.

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