With eight returning senior starters, the Madison girls soccer team was in cruise control for the first third of the season as it raced out to five wins in its first five matches. And that was the problem. The Bulldogs were good, but not good enough to make another run at a Class C South title.

When Madison finally stumbled, in disappointing fashion under the lights at rival Monmouth, co-coach Michael Walsh knew he had the carrot he could dangle in front of the Bulldogs all season long.

“The start of the season was mystifying to us,” Walsh said. “Right from the get-go we asked the girls, ‘What do you want to be?’ and they said they wanted to be state champions. I thought, ‘OK, that’s a good goal, let’s work toward that. How are you going to get there?’

“The problem at the beginning of year was getting them to play with a high level of intensity. Then Monmouth came along. They beat us, and then the lights went on.”

Madison went on to win 11 straight games and claim the school’s first regional championship. For their efforts, Madison co-coaches Walsh and Erin Wood are the Morning Sentinel Girls Soccer Coaches of the Year.

It’s the first such honor for the father-daughter duo.

“Sometimes when you have a good loss at just the right time of the season, it sets you up to be able to coach the team. Now you’ve got a market,” Walsh said. “We beat some decent teams, but we hadn’t played well. I thought if we keep playing like this, we can forget about being state champions.”

Having so many seniors might appear to be a luxury on the outside, but on the inside it can also present a number of challenges. Complacency can set in, or without the influx of new blood the message from the coaches can begin falling on deaf ears.

The latter was what Wood — who had coached many of the girls since they were in first grade in local recreation leagues — feared was happening.

“I felt like a broken record, for sure,” Wood said. “I stopped coaching junior high soccer when (the seniors) were in eighth grade, because I just wanted to watch my own girls play, and I loved it. It was great. Part of my hesitation in coming back was knowing these girls have already heard me for several years. At what point will they tune me out?”

But, Wood said, the team’s desire to succeed helped put her fears to rest.

“When it counted, when the stakes were higher or games were critical, they did listen,” Wood said. “They were far more adaptable than I would ever have imagined when it came to making changes. That speaks to their love of the game, their love of the team and wanting to be successful. They were willing to be coached.”

Senior Ashley Emery said that having two head coaches, instead of the usual head coach-assistant coach structure, benefited the players.

“It was really good — one will have one side of it, the other will have the other side of things,” Emery said. “If you needed to ask a question, you could go to either of them to figure things out.”

From early in the season, Walsh and Wood prepared the team not for what would happen in the next game or the next week. Everything they did kept one eye on what the team would need in the playoffs — where they won in penalty kicks over Traip in the regional semifinals and in double-overtime over Monmouth — to reach the state final.

That meant motivating the team to play at a higher level and making tactical adjustments once the playoffs rolled around.

“I’m sure other some coaches weren’t happy with us because we scored a lot of goals sometimes, but if you tell your team to stop scoring it can devolve on you,” Walsh said. “We were really preparing for the playoffs, because that’s where we wanted to be good. How do you get them ready for playoffs? How do you keep the level of intensity high? You have to expect a high level of play every game, every time.”

Madison was rewarded with the Class C South title before falling 1-0 to Houlton in the state final.

“We certainly have everything to be proud of,” Wood said. “You look back at the regional final, the performance they put together was a remarkable, remarkable effort. The energy and intensity was outstanding. And against Houlton, there was nothing wrong with our effort in that game. If you had Houlton and Madison match up over a series of games, we would be winners as well. It would be maybe a 50-50 split.”

“It felt special at the time, and it still feels very special,” Walsh said of the regional title. “In addition to winning our first regional championship, we had to go back to Monmouth, who beat us during the season pretty handily, and beat them on their home field in what I’m sure was as big a game for them as it was for us. … It was a big game for us and part of the process of getting to our goal of winning the state championship.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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