The funny thing about planning is that plans are often foiled. And no matter how carefully a plan may be put together, there may not be room for an audible, much less several changes.
At Newton North, the storied girls’ soccer program has completed the full 360.
The Tigers drifted away from their state championship ways of the 1990s (titles in ’89, ’92, ’96 and ’99) to become a midlevel team in the early part of the new millennium, only to suddenly catch the attention of not just the state but the country.
Newton North was ranked 20th in the most recent National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll.
The script has been rewritten a dozen times. And then edited again.
But it is still a work in progress.
Never did James Hamblin plan for this when he took the head coaching job in 2009. Though athletic director Tom Giusti might have had an inkling.
“They were having .500 seasons,” Hamblin said, “but Tom was very proud of the history, the tradition. I think they were a force to be reckoned with 20 years ago. They had an excellent girls’ soccer program,’’ he said, and recalled Giusti telling him, “We’d like to try to get back there.”
The Tigers failed to qualify for the state tournament in 2008, the year before Hamblin arrived, and again couldn’t get there during his first season.
The following season was slightly more encouraging for Hamblin, who moved to the United States from England in 2002, two years after his brother, Chris , finished up an impressive four-year career as the goalkeeper at Boston College.
Emily Brown and Evelyn Hurwitz earned Bay State Conference All-Star honors in 2010. But Hamblin’s biggest decision of the season — which ended at 9-9-1 when the Tigers were three goals worse than Peabody in the first round of the Division 1 North bracket — was in August.
He didn’t plan this one. It all happened by accident.
The girl was Shannon Fitzgerald , a 5-foot-9 freshman with blazing speed, though she had the touch of an elephant, as Hamblin described it. Still adjusting to her height, Fitzgerald compared herself to a different animal: a baby giraffe.
Hamblin wasn’t totally sure what to do with her, so he offered her the choice: Get playing time on the junior varsity squad or sit the bench on the varsity. It should have been a no-brainer. That was the plan, anyway.
Out of naivete, Fitzgerald chose to sit the bench.
“I was awful,” she said. “Bad. So awful. Like someone would pass it to me and I would shoot it back at their face.”
In the first game of the season, there was an injury to a starting player, and Hamblin gave the lanky freshman a chance.
“He’s like, ‘Shannon, we’ll put you in,’ ” Fitzgerald remembered. “I was the only one who scored that game. From then on he saw something in me.”
Fitzgerald was one piece.
In 2011, the Tigers identified another: Christina Callahan . Sarah Perlo and HollySzafran had standout seasons, but Callahan, a midfielder with touch and vision, aggression and fearlessness, showed particular promise.
This would be the year. That was the plan, anyway.
The Tigers took a 3-1 lead on Chelmsford in the Division 1 North quarterfinals with about 10 minutes to go.
The Tigers could hear the home crowd yelling, “ ‘Their season is over,’ ” Fitzgerald said. “And then they scored two goals. It went to double-overtime and with zero seconds
left.” She had to stop there. Chelmsford netted the winner.
Said Callahan, “I swear to you I still have nightmares about it. The thing is, you live and learn. There’s never a time where we don’t bring it up at practice. James finishes off speeches before important games, ‘Never forget Chelmsford,’ because it’s so true. I’m getting worked up talking about it.”
Last fall, the Tigers added another piece, again by happenstance. Angela Ward transferred from the Middlesex School and turned into a threat as a powerful target up top.
The tournament arrived. Newton North took a 10-minute nap against Lincoln-Sudbury Regional, put in an own-goal and fell behind 2-0. Another own-goal followed and the Tigers lost, 4-2.
Two season-ending heart-breakers had occurred in succession. Hamblin told the returning girls it wouldn’t happen again. Not like that.
With eight seniors, the Tigers this fall have found something. Ward (seven goals through 13 games) instantly slid in at the forward position to form a dynamic duo with Fitzgerald, who has become a lightning-fast, 5-foot-11 scoring machine (22 goals).
Callahan (nine goals, an uncalculated amount of assists) is the pointy end of the backward triangle that forms one of the most impressive offenses in the state.
“They’re the most dangerous team I’ve seen all year,” marveled longtime Needham High coach Carl Tarabelli.
The Tigers were 13-0-1 through Thursday. Hamblin isn’t quite sure how it all happened, but “it’s something I would’ve liked to have happen, and it has happened.”
They’re not the Tigers of old. The current seniors abandoned old traditions from former teams and started new ones.
Tradition in sports can be replaced by winning. Newton North is doing that.
The Tigers want an undefeated season, hoping to avoid yet another anticlimactic ending in this year’s tournament. And if they do it, the eight seniors have vowed to get paw-print tattoos on their feet.
That’s the plan.
Needham program earns special kudos
The American Cancer Society will honor the Needham High girls’ soccer team Thursday when the Rockets host Braintree.
The entire soccer program — from freshmen to varsity — campaigned in the preseason to collect pledges for donations to help support breast cancer awareness. Each pledge was attached to a certain cash amount based on the Rockets’ success (goals, wins add to the donation value). As of Wednesday, the program had collected more than $20,000 in pledges.
“In my wildest dreams, I’ve never thought they could reach that,” said coach Carl Tarabelli.
turns the corner
After losing three straight — to Holliston, Norton and Westwood, all Tri-Valley League foes — the Medway High girls have rattled off four wins in a row, outscoring opponents 14-3 in the process. As of Wednesday, the Mustangs led the TVL with a 10-4 record while averaging 2½ goals per game.Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.