Skowhegan girls soccer head coach Mike Herrick, center, works out with his team who is preparing for their first postseason appearance in 13 years Thursday at Skowhegan Area High School. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

SKOWHEGAN — Wednesday’s practice for the Skowhegan girls soccer team ended with a penalty kick shootout.

To the untrained eye, it appeared a simple way to inject a little fun into the end of a training session as the regular season drew to a close. But, to those in the know, the simple drill represented something the Indians haven’t had to worry about in years. When the postseason begins later this month, Skowhegan will participate in the Class A North regional tournament.

It’s a spot the Indians haven’t been in since 2005.

“We’ve seen big improvements every year,” said head coach Mike Herrick, now in his third season of his second tour at the program’s helm. “Really, their whole career has been, ‘OK, we’re working hard and getting better, but where are the results?’ I’m so happy for these girls. They bought in from day one and they work so hard.”

The team won just three games last season, finishing 11th out of 12 teams in the region. The two years prior they were winless in each 14-game campaign.

“A lot of kids wouldn’t have stuck with it,” Herrick said. “I just knew if there was a group to turn it around and stick with it and not just give up, even though for a lot of them soccer might be their third-favorite sport, this was that group.”

After going winless in their first four games of the season, Skowhegan rattled off four straight victories. They enter Friday night’s key matchup with Bangor with a 6-5-1 record, having won six of their last eight.

The team’s only losses during the stretch have come against No. 2 Brunswick and No. 3 Messalonskee, two sides with just one loss apiece this fall.

“I knew that it was going to come. I thought it was a matter of when rather than if,” Skowhegan senior Sydney Reed said. “It’s nice to know our hard work is finally being recognized and it’s paying off.”

Soccer might not be the first love among any members of the team’s nucleus. Reed is a standout softball catcher, Sydney Ames is a tremendous basketball and softball player, Annie Cooke is an all-conference basketball talent, and Alyssa Everett is a starter for both the softball and basketball squads at Skowhegan. The talent, and success, of those two teams has proven a nice breeding ground for the soccer field.

“We’re all pretty good athletes, and we know each others’ capabilities,” Cooke said. “Our whole group probably hasn’t spent as much time on soccer as we wish we would have. Definitely basketball and softball we’ve done way more as younger kids, but we still love soccer.”

“It’s a mindset, really,” Herrick said. “If you know how to win, I don’t care if you’re having a paper airplane contest. If you’re competitive, you’re competitive.

“I remember one time with (Everett) two years ago she didn’t understand what I was talking about. She was way over on her mark. I said ‘Alyssa, Shell Drill’ — which is something they do in basketball — and she got it immediately. They have that culture, because they’re well-oiled machines in some other sports. I definitely piggy-back off of that.”

When the current crop of Indian seniors were freshmen, they surrendered 96 goals to the opposition while scoring only 11 times themselves. Herrick moved Cooke to center the back line when he took over the coaching reigns in 2016, and the goals allowed dropped nearly 50 percent. Last season, opponents outscored Skowhegan 30-18.

Fast-forward to this week, where Skowhegan sits fifth behind Bangor heading into Friday night’s Heal point-rich meeting up north, and the team has just a minus-5 goal differential. Throw out a 9-0 loss to undefeated juggernaut Camden Hills, and Skowhegan has outscored the opposition by a 25-21 count.

“The biggest moment for me to kind of say what direction we were going was our first win against Oxford Hills (on Sept. 14),” Herrick said. “We were in double overtime and scored with 50 seconds left, and that was the first of four straight wins. … A lot of games that were close and didn’t go our way last year, all of a sudden we’re saying look at that one play in this game that last year wouldn’t have happened. It just keeps building.”

The girls soccer team at Skowhegan is no longer a laughing stock, no longer a punchline tagged on at the end of a long discourse about the perennial state championship field hockey team — long recognized, rightly so, as the benchmark for high school sports success in Maine.

With at least one win or one draw out of their final two regular season games, the Indians will ensure themselves of finishing .500 or better for the first time in well over a decade. In fact, the last time Skowhegan made the playoffs 13 years ago, they did so with only five wins in a losing season.

Skowhegan girls soccer head coach Mike Herrick, center, works out with his team Thursday in Skowhegan. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

“It’s always field hockey, field hockey, field hockey,” Cooke said. “You don’t ever hear anything about the soccer program, so it’s awesome that people are giving us recognition.”

So, this week, there was the Skowhegan side practicing penalty kicks and preparing for the possibility of a post-game shootout, the method used for breaking ties at the end of overtime periods in the postseason.

“My analogy is it was like cramming for the test the night before — we were trying to teach them some stuff that other kids learned when they were 12 years old,” Herrick said of the 2016 and 2017 seasons. “I had a lot of sophomores that are now seniors, and at the time it was a little overwhelming for them. I knew that we were going to have them for three years, so we just kept building and building and building. All of a sudden, everything clicked. Now they’re bigger, stronger, faster and we keep adding to what we’ve learned every year.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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