Forget about conventional wisdom. A position in soccer is just a label. Center midfielders play all over the field. Right wings make runs to the left side. Stoppers do more than just stop.
To make a bigger impact, positional limits need to be broken. The imaginary fence needs to be torn down and run over.
At Acton-Boxborough Regional High, sophomore Pietra Sweeney is bringing back that old-time offensive feel to the term “outside fullback.” Scoring on clinical volleys off set pieces and nailing 25-yard shots are just part of her repertoire, which also includes the defensive ability to limit the best strikers in the state.
And on a team that made headlines for knocking undefeated Peabody Veterans Memorial High from its top-ranked spot in the nation, and then ending the Tanners’ season by beating them again in the Division 1 North bracket, that extra dazzle was more than welcome as the Colonials went 10-7-3 this season before losing to Westford via penalty kicks in the sectional quarterfinals.
“I'm one of the old-school coaches that likes my defenders to get in the attack and go forward,” said Acton-Boxborough coach Lee Billiard , who doubles as the general manager of the Boston Breakers. “You don't see it much anymore. That's the style I coach with my teams. And Pietra is real good at that.”
Called up to the varsity late last year, Sweeney quickly made an impression on Billiard and was inserted into the starting lineup for the remainder of the season, playing a more reserved defensive role.
It didn't take long for Billiard to realize that Sweeney came from a rare breed. And it isn’t genetics — no one else in her family plays the game.
Sweeney didn't ask to fall in love with soccer. The game vacuumed her in.
“Whenever someone asks what my hobbies are, I always say soccer. I don't know what else to say,” she said.
“My life is all about soccer and school and family.”
One of a handful who can seriously study game film — and perhaps one of the only girls enjoying it — Sweeney was happily given the key to throw away the metaphorical handcuffs this season and run wild.
Her one-on-one defensive ability was good enough to help contain Peabody's Hayley Dowd and Concord-Carlisle's Andrea O'Brien , both of whom will play their collegiate soccer at Division 1 power Boston College. In four games against the two goal-magnets, only O'Brien found the net. And it was off a free kick.
“Pietra very rarely gets beat,” Billiard said. “She just reads the game too well.”
Then came the surprise. Well, not to Billiard, but for other teams.
Sweeney started scoring. And when she wasn't scoring, she was finding other ways to get involved in the offense. Whenever there was extra space, she took it, making darting runs up field to the point where the 5-foot-6 defender routinely looked around and suddenly realized, “Whoa, I'm in the other team’s [18-yard] box.”
With a pinpoint delivery on crosses and more than a generic shot on goal, Sweeney scored three times this fall and dished out double that in assists, all from the left fullback position.
“High school teams just don't do that much,” Billiard said. “A lot of teams prefer the more direct style. They'll just hit it to the forwards. Then you get some coaches who try to stretch teams out. To do that, you need to get your fullbacks forward.”
The dream has already been implanted in Sweeney: “I want to play at the highest level possible,” she said.
For her, it's all about the love of the game. She loves playing defense and she loves playing offense — too much so to give one up.
Forget about boundaries. Sweeney is willing to do whatever it takes. Even hog all the storage space in her family's DVR. “I have nine women's college soccer games recorded right now,” Sweeney said. “I like to learn the way they play.”
Brandhorst steps out
of O’Brien’s shadow
At Concord-Carlisle, Andrea O'Brien leaves a legacy that won't soon be forgotten: More than 100 career goals and almost always wearing a smile and a headband.
But coach Nancy Slocum has already watched the next in line begin to succeed.
Junior forward Emma Brandhorst trades in her lacrosse stick for a pair of shin guards four months out of the year. And on the rare occasion that O'Brien was shut down — often because of opposing teams giving her the flies-on-raw-meat defense — Brandhorst usually found the net.
“The difference between her sophomore and junior year was her touch on the ball,” Slocum said. “She's a force to be reckoned with.”
Scoring 15 goals and dishing out three assists in a season where she missed several games recovering from a concussion, Brandhorst earned second-team Eastern Massachusetts honors.
But with her name now established, and O'Brien off to Chestnut Hill, next fall could be a challenge.
“I'm excited for it,” Brandhorst said. “Andrea and I have worked so well together. And now I think it'll be good for me to see what I can do without her always being there to back me up."
sees reason for hope
For the second time in as many years, the Dover-Sherborn boys' soccer team saw its season end on penalty kicks, this time falling to Watertown in the Eastern Mass. Division 3 title game.
But junior Jake Frankenfield gives the Raiders plenty of reason for hope next fall.
Sitting out the entire season last fall with a back injury, Frankenfield spent his time running film and operating behind the scenes.
This season, he moved from his natural sweeper position into the midfield and then eventually to forward.
“He's really starting to learn the position well,” said coach Joe Gruseck . “He gives us a different dimension. He can hold the ball well or you can hit him in transition and he has the skill to go at people.”