MONROE – Since Vic Johnson took over the Union Academy girls soccer program before the 2014 season, the Cardinals have been one of the state’s top 1A teams.
Johnson has led the Cardinals to a 79-13-7 record over that stretch, and they enjoyed their best season last year. In 2017, they didn’t lose for 21 consecutive games, made it to the third round of the playoffs and finished 21-2-2 behind the tandem of then-junior Caleigh MacKinnon and then-freshman Sarah Brown, who combined for a staggering 99 goals and 70 assists.
But Johnson wanted more. He developed a plan and spoke to his two superstars about it before the start of the season.
“That was kind of our talk,” he said. “I said, ‘Look, we’ve had success playing as a two-man team, and we can do it again.’ I knew we’d be good. We were 22-2 doing it that way last year, but we needed to be better and to do that we needed to get more people involved so they aren’t taken out of the game. And they did that.”
MacKinnon (36 goals, 25 assists) and Brown (19 goals, 53 assists) still scored plenty. But their willingness to let other players including Kelsey Havican (32 goals, 21 assists), Mya Manivanh (19 goals), Catie O’Grady (19 goals) and Mia Fraticelli (11 goals) become constant threats themselves made the Cardinals much better.
State championship better, actually, as the Cardinals went 25-1 and won the school’s first team title by winning their final 21 games.
“Vic talked to us and there was a very big difference in my mindset this year,” Brown said. “Last year, my goals and assists were kind of even with (34 goals, 37 assists), but this year, my assists took off. I focused more on getting the ball to other people and scoring wasn’t really my mindset. Of course, I wanted to score, but if it wasn’t open it’s better for me to get other people better opportunities.”
And nobody has ever done what Brown accomplished this season. Her 53 assists are a new NCHSAA single-season record, earning her second all-state nomination and the 2018 Union County Weekly Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
And it could have been more.
After prom dress shopping with her mom and friend, Brown was involved in a car accident when a distracted driver plowed into them going an estimated 55 miles per hour. Brown remembers spilling her coffee, but also suffered a concussion in the accident that otherwise only left scratches and bruises.
It forced her to miss five games, Johnson said. Brown said it was a difficult time watching her teammates play and a struggle to get back into the groove for a game or two when she did return.
But Johnson thought of all the chances it cost Brown on the field as well.
“She missed five games due to a concussion, and four of those games were mercy rule games,” he said. “So think about how many assists she could have had. She missed 41 goals to be a part of where she didn’t get any of those goals or any of those assists. So, yeah, it could have been a lot more.”
Brown returned to the lineup in time for the Cardinals to avenge last season’s playoff loss to Community School of Davidson. She scored and had an assist in that game, but cruised the rest of the year becoming the state champion’s most complete player.
“Sarah can do it all,” Johnson said. “She is an all-around good player. Her first touch, her knowledge of the game and her vision are great. She has the ability to beat defenses or defend herself at a very high level. She can play pretty much play any position on the field. She is just a dynamic, all-around player.”
Brown has already received plenty of recruiting interest. Catawba has already offered her a full ride and others like the Charlotte 49ers, Elon, Gardner Webb and High Point are on her trail. And more will follow suit soon.
“After last year, all of the D2 schools that were on her last year and even some smaller D1 schools have all backed off because they know,” Johnson said.
It has all come on quickly for Brown, but it was almost not to be.
After playing since she was 4, Brown tired of the sport. She was going to play on the Union Academy team, but didn’t want to keep playing club ball during the off-season.
That was until Johnson saw her on the field one day.
“He saw me playing at school and said, ‘Oh no, you’re going to play for my team,’” Brown said. “Playing here has regained my love for the sport.
“This year started off rough because we lost early on, but that made us fight harder and gave us a reality check that we were going to have to fight harder to accomplish our goals. It was a very exciting year. We’re coming from a small school that has never won a team title. We wanted to do it for ourselves, but we also wanted to do it for the school and to be remembered as the first state champions.”
The Cardinals will go down in history. And so will the new state record holder for assists.
“I was very proud of myself when I found that out,” Brown said. “I’m not one to go talking about my accomplishments, but that made me realize that I did something pretty special. It was great to get acknowledged for something.
“It’s crazy. I didn’t know about any of the state records, or Player of the Year or anything. I’ve obviously not made it or anything, but it’s a happy feeling knowing that I’m getting recognized for my work on the field. It makes me want to keep pushing myself, working hard and having success with my teammates.”