As the final whistle blew Tuesday night, Sam Pfeil turned and saw Brooke Tardugno barreling down the field toward her. The rest of the Methuen girls’ soccer players followed, sprinting off the bench and from all corners of the field to clamor around their goalkeeper.
The Methuen girls’ soccer team had beaten Central Catholic for the first time, with a 2-1 comeback victory.
“It was an awesome feeling that I’ll probably never get back,” Pfeil said. “I felt so relieved. I just felt so happy.”
In four years as head coach, Kayla (Grover) Camara has taken Methuen from a 6-10-2 finish in 2019 to the program’s first Merrimack Valley Conference title last fall.
Now, Methuen, ranked No. 11 in this week’s Globe Top 20, is off to a 9-0 start. Camara, who starred in goal at Haverhill High and Bridgewater State, has used her goalkeeping experience and defensive focus to overhaul the Ranger program. The results are showing up on paper.
‘We’re writing history here’
Methuen girls' soccer coach Kayla Camara on the No. 11 Rangers' 9-0 start
Five of the Rangers’ nine games this season have resulted in shutouts, which Camara attributes to Pfeil and her lights-out defensive cohort, senior captain Hailee Pickles. Both serve as anchors of Methuen’s defense.
“When they play their best, it allows our offense to do their best,” Camara said.
Pickles, who committed to Saint Anselm, is the reigning MVC Division 2 Player of the Year.
“She’s a lights-out defender,” Camara said. “Her speed alone sets her apart.”
At 5-foot-10, Pfeil seems like a natural fit to play keeper. But she did not play the position until her freshman year. The transition wasn’t too difficult — she credits her basketball skills and her hand-eye coordination. But it did require hours of training with Camara, who founded the Atlantic Keeper Academy in 2017.
Through her business, Camara has not only trained Pfeil, but opposing players, including current North Andover keeper Logan Crane. When Methuen faced North Andover earlier this season — a 2-0 win for the Rangers — Camara got to see her work in action on both ends of the field.
“Some of the girls ask me, ‘Coach, why do you have to train the other goalkeepers?’” she said. “And it’s like, ‘Well, it’s going to make our job harder. Shoot at the corners — I don’t know what to tell you. They’re good goalkeepers.’”
No matter how good they are, Camara often finds herself reminding her players that they’re not going to save every goal, and the biggest lesson she tries to teach them — both goalies and field players — is resilience.
When Central Catholic scored against Methuen in the first half of Tuesday’s game, it marked the first time all season that the Rangers had trailed. Tardugno, Pickles and Riley O’Hearn, the captains of the squad, reminded their teammates about being resilient.
“I think it was important not to get too negative, even though we were down and hadn’t been in that position yet,” Tardugno said. “But at halftime, we all came together, and you could tell we had a little bit more energy.”
“I knew we were going to win,” she said. “I just had a good feeling.”
How has Camara done it? How has she created a cohesive team?
First, the Rangers never practice on weekends. Camara said between soccer, other extracurricular activities, friends, family and work, her players are already stretched thin. They don’t need to spend every waking hour on the soccer field. Plus, she said, it makes the first practice back on Mondays that much more effective.
“I just noticed that sometimes on the weekends, the girls are kind of half there, so why have a half-practice?” Camara said. “There’s more to life than just soccer practice on a Saturday morning or a Sunday afternoon.”
Second, the team now has weekly — if not daily — pasta dinners at players’ and coaches’ houses. Mac & cheese is a crowd favorite, according to Pickles. The players usually devour their dinner in less than half an hour, but they’ll stick around for another two hours just getting to know each other.
“At the end, people will be leaving, and Brooke will just be like, ‘I don’t want to go home yet,’” Pickles said.
But all those hours spent together, either on the field or sharing a plate of pasta, have created a “vibe” and a “family atmosphere,” Camara said, that has propelled Methuen to juggernaut status.
“We’re writing history here,” the coach said.
Norwell, the defending Division 3 champion, knew expectations would be sky-high. But after graduating 15 seniors, including Giulianna Gianino, (starting as a freshman for Boston University), expectations were tempered as goalie Belle Pettit and just two other starters — senior captain Chloe Kirchner and sophomore Paige Flanders — returned.
The Clippers opened the season with five straight draws before rattling off four consecutive wins, outscoring South Shore League opponents 17-0. .
“Every season, teams start to get their identity a few games in,” said coach Kara Connerty. “We graduated 15 seniors last season and the ability to put the ball away was a work in progress. The last few games, we found a way to do that. With anything, confidence comes with the results.”
Freshman forward Anja Johnson has a team-leading six goals and an assist, finishing opportunities in the attacking third generated by the central midfieldersKirchner and Flanders.
“[Anja] has really helped out in terms of putting the ball away,” said Connerty. “Their confidence in setting up the plays for someone like Anja has grown.”
Sophomore Ari Veneto and senior Caroline Hayes have contributed to the attack, and the defense has posted four clean sheets in the last five outings.
Sophomore Reagan Dowd commands the backline at center back, along with sophomore Eden Wheeler and junior Audrey Loring.
“We always say that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and we want to play our best soccer at the end of the season,” Connerty said.
▪ Bishop Feehan, Masconomet, and Methuen remain the three unbeatean MIAA teams in Eastern Massachusetts.
Games to watch
Thursday, No. 20 Holliston at No. 12 Medway, 3:30 p.m. –– The leaders in the Tri-Valley League Large and Small divisions clash for the first time with the Panthers riding a seven-game winning streak.
Thursday, Martha’s Vineyard at No. 19 Nauset, 4 p.m. –– The two teams atop the Cape & Islands League Atlantic division face off in a rematch; Nauset prevailed, 2-0, in the first meeting Sept. 13.
Thursday, No. 16 Needham at No. 2 Natick, 6 p.m. –– Teams atop their respective divisions in the Bay State Conference meet for the first time. Natick has only conceded two goals all season.
Saturday, No. 6 Brookline at Danvers, 4 p.m. –– Fresh off an exciting 1-0 win to dethrone previously unbeaten Newton South, Brookline travels north to face a strong Falcons squad, led by sophomore sensation Georgia Prouty.
Tuesday, No. 10 Franklin at No. 4 Newton South, 4:30 p.m. –– In an exciting nonleague matchup, the Panthers, paced by junior forward Anya Zub, meet a deep and talented South squad.
Correspondent Cam Kerry contributed to this story.
Emma Healy can be reached at email@example.com.