April 6, 2013 11:13:17 PM
STARKVILLE -- Reagan Hern and Cailee Helen McClain are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
One has matured from a "scrawny, quiet kid" into leader who has helped a program become more competitive, while the other is taking her first steps as a force in her program.
Even though one is a senior and the other is a freshman, both showed this past season they are impact players capable of leading a group of younger players and leading a team in scoring.
For their accomplishments this season, New Hope High School's Hern and Starkville High's McClain are The Dispatch's All-Area co-Girls Soccer Players of the Year.
Hern has been a mainstay for the Lady Trojans for the past five seasons. She spent much of that time with her sister, Sarah, The Dispatch's Girls Soccer Player of the Year last season, who went on to play this past season at Itawamba Community College. Reagan will join her sister in Fulton later this year.
This past season, Regan Hern was third in goals (10) and second in points (26) and helped New Hope advance to the second round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State tournament.
"Soccer was always my favorite sport, but I really found my love for it and built a strong passion for it when I got to New Hope," said Hern, who started playing soccer when she was 7 or 8 years old. "Soccer is pretty much my whole life. It is what I love doing. It is not easy leaving a high school team after five years, but to be able to keep doing what I like and to be able to get a scholarship for it really meant a lot."
Hern said she speed and her running ability were her biggest assets when she first tried out for the New Hope High varsity girls soccer team. She said coach Mary Nagy "took her under her wing" and helped her get to where she is today. She believes she had the foundation to become a solid player, but she didn't have any idea she would become someone who would realize a goal and play in college.
"You go so far from looking back to eighth-grade year to my senior year," Hern said. "I got recognized for a lot of things my senior year, so it just showed how far I have come."
Hern credits her parents, George and Cindy, for helping teach her how to be a leader. Those traits were on display this past season as she played the "mother hen" role as senior on a squad of younger players. Looking back, she takes a great sense of pride in the part she played in helping New Hope High girls soccer become more competitive. She also is proud she played a role as captain and set an example for the younger girls.
"My love for the sport has grown so much stronger," Hern said. "I didn't think I could love soccer any more than I did when I first was out there."
Nagy recalls a player she described as "lanky" and who "didn't have any meat on her bones" when she was an eighth-grader. Still, Nagy saw Hern's potential. When Hern hit her growth spurt and learned how to use her new-found size with her speed, Nagy said the results were dangerous.
"She had the ability and the desire (to earn a position on the team) and she had to fight for it," Nagy said. "She fought for it, and when she was an eighth- and ninth-grader she used her speed to get out of difficult situations. As she grew, she became a more well-rounded player and her physicality came into play. I never thought we would get out of her what she did. As she got older she learned how to put it all together."
Hern hopes to continue to elevate her game at ICC. She said she is looking forward to playing with her sister and other players she knows from Select and Challenge soccer ICC. She hopes the next two years will help her realize her ultimate goal: to play soccer at Mississippi State University.
"I think if I can work hard, and that's what I plan to do, I think I can be there," Hern said. "I guess it just depends on what happens after two years at ICC."
McClain has time to work her way to similar goals. It's possible the freshman forward could follow the same path, too, because she isn't the tallest player, but Starkville coach Anna Albritton said she used her speed to be an scoring threat this season. In fact, McClain led the Lady Yellow Jackets with eight goals and 19 points.
McClain, who admits she gets hard on herself because she is a perfectionist, said she never in her wildest dreams imagined she would be the leading scorer on the team this season.
"We had all of these upperclassmen on the team and all of these older girls on the team, so I thought they would be the leading scorers and I thought I might score a few, so I guess I was wrong," McClain said. "I just put 100 percent in every time I was on the field. When the opportunity was there, I just took the shot -- sometimes."
Albritton said she encouraged McClain to shoot more, which McClain said she tried to adjust to during the course of the season. She said she understood Albritton wanted her to take on a bigger role, and she said she felt comfortable playing forward, which she said is one of her favorite places to play.
"I guess it is my speed and my skills (that help me do well as a forward)," said McClain, who started playing soccer when she was 4 of 5 years old in the Starkville Recreation Leagues. She has played Select Soccer and Challenge Soccer for several years, and is in her third year as a member of the Tupelo Futbol Club 98 girls. "I thought I was going to have an average season and score some goals here and there and have a couple of assists."
McClain feels she could have accomplished even more. She said she knows when she has a bad game and can "feel it." Albritton said McClain doesn't need someone to tell her when she has an off game and then goes out without being asked to to improve on what she didn't do.
McClain is also quick to credit her teammates for the individual accomplishments she achieved in her first season with the varsity team. She said the knowledge and experience she gained this season will give her confidence to know she can reach even higher levels in the future. She also is looking forward to developing an even stronger rapport with her teammates and being able to anticipate runs and to know how to deliver the best passes.
This season, McClain said there were a lot of times she felt she didn't do something right or quick enough. But Albritton said it didn't take very long for the Lady Yellow Jackets to find a rhythm and push the team to the Class 5A North State title game. McClain helped Starkville get there by leading the team with goals and points. She feels she is more of a passer than a scorer, which is how she always has played. She didn't go as far to say she liked assists more than goals. She feels she built up a high level of trust with her teammates so they know she will be able to deliver.
"I do (feel like I accomplished something) because I scored and I helped win games," McClain said. "There are times I could have scored and I could have tied the game, or something, but I beat myself up because of that."
McClain wants to work on shooting more to hone her scoring acumen and to have a better field awareness so she can better set up her teammates for scoring chances.
Albritton is confident McClain will improve in those areas and many more. She said McClain came to the program with solid fundamental skills, which helped her step in and earn the trust of older players on the team. Still, Albritton admitted it isn't often a freshman makes such a big splash on a team with proven varsity players and winds up the leading scorer. She said that is a tribute to how hard McClain has worked to put her in this position.
"Like Cailee Helen said, she is a perfectionist, and she is going to push herself to be better than this year," Albritton said. "I don't have to say anything. She will do it herself. It is very rare to run across a player this young who has this much desire to do it. This is her thing, and she knows it is, and she is going to do whatever it takes to get better."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.