By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Most high school soccer programs don’t see a talent like Jenna Sayers for a long time after she graduates. Oakcrest only had to wait one offseason.
Sayers, a 2015 graduate, held the mantle of the Falcons’ all-time leading scorer for less time than she was in high school, as current senior Gabi Johnson exploded for 33 goals and 17 assists this fall to set the new school scoring mark at 63 career goals — after notching 20 goals and 10 assists as a junior. And the Glory Days Magazine girls soccer Player of the Year did most of her damage despite a bum right knee.
The wear and tear of not only high school, but club soccer, caught up to Johnson early this season and she began having trouble with the knee. Doctors suggested rest, but with less than two dozen games left in her prep career, that simply wasn’t an option.
“I was fighting through a knee injury for most of the season. It happened early in the season. It was tough dealing with it, but I really wanted to play,” Johnson said. “It’s really hard for me to just sit and watch. It was frustrating at times. I would use a bunch of ICY HOT and my trainer would wrap my knee up really good. I just had to learn how to play through it. It started to get worse as the season went on, and I wasn’t even supposed to play in our last playoff game, but I couldn’t just sit there.”
During the second round of the state playoffs — a hard-scrabble affair with visiting Pt. Boro — Johnson spent much of the first half in the trainer’s room. Knowing that the game was a scoreless tie at halftime, Johnson wrapped her knee as best she could and hobbled out for the second half. Coach Jason Hearn inserted her into the lineup, and although she didn’t score, the Panthers knew exactly who she was and immediately double-covered her. That led to an opening for teammate Nicolette Curcio to score the tying goal late in the second half, and the Panthers and Falcons went to a penalty kick shootout after being knotted at 1-1 after two overtime periods.
Oakcrest eventually won that game and advanced to the South Jersey Group 2 semifinals before being stopped, 2-1, by top-seeded Haddonfield. The game against Pt. Boro epitomized Johnson’s season, which featured a steady diet of double and sometimes triple coverage. But even though teams focused on stopping her and teammate Jana White, the dynamic duo combined for 51 goals and 30 assists in 21 games. And they, along with a strong defense led by goalie Brielle Smith and defenders Alexa Dimino and Haleigh Whitcraft, helped lead the Falcons to a school-record 15 wins.
“I don’t think I ever had that kind of pressure on me before, because I had Jenna’s help. I had help this season, but I was one of the top scorers, so if we were losing and I was sitting on the bench, I felt bad. I would want to go in and score,” Johnson said. “Almost every team — at least when we played them the second time — would double-team me, and even triple-team me, but Jana played an important role with give-and-goes and things like that. I could never hold the ball for too long. And Haleigh had a few assists from the center back position.”
Oakcrest’s ability to shut teams down on defense allowed Johnson and White to roam free up top and create a ton of scoring chances. Johnson is one of the most skilled players in South Jersey with the ball on her foot, and even with double or triple coverage she often could create a scoring chance and blast a shot from distance.
The ability to control the ball with her feet, even when in a crowd, also gave her the chance to survey the field as she was making her move around a defender. Drawing the kind of attention she did, and being able to see openings in the defense, is what led to her team-high 17 assists. Still, an elite club-level player such as Johnson knows better than to ever be satisfied.
“I’m very proud of what I’ve done. I broke a few records, but there is always room for improvement,” she said.
But even Johnson said she is surprised she nudged Sayers out of the top spot in the record books.
“I honestly didn’t expect to get that record,” she said. “Jenna Sayers was a great player and went to play in the Big Ten with Rutgers, so I wasn’t expecting to get that at all. I just worked hard and tried my best.”
The ability to help her team challenge for a Cape-Atlantic League National Conference and sectional title, however, is what made Johnson’s senior season so much fun, she said.
“It was very exciting. Not only because of my scoring, but because of the team also. We were a very good team this year, winning most of our games, so that was exciting,” Johnson said. “I think after the first couple of games, as we got our flow together, we knew had a chance to compete (in the CAL and playoffs).”
Now that her high school career is over, Johnson turns her attention to Temple University, where she’ll be a freshman next fall.
“I’m very exciting. I’m nervous and I know it’s not going to be easy at all. I’m going to have to start training a lot harder and practicing more,” she said. “I think I’ll mostly miss my friends and my team. We grew up together, so I’m going to miss them a lot.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays