By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
If you’re looking for some kind of explanation for how a Mainland girls soccer team that had just one player score double-digit goals could reach a South Jersey Group 3 championship game, you have to dig a little deeper than the stat sheet.
Heart, determination, grit — these things can’t be measured in numbers, and they are traits the Kaes twins had in spades. Sydney — the older twin by about 15 minutes — was a central defender, and a central reason why the Mustangs posted 11 shutouts in 23 games. Julia was an oft-injured midfielder who was able to stay healthy this fall and put together the best season of her career.
The Kaes twins are everything a coach could want as the pillars of his program. They are easy to miss during the course of the game because they are quiet and unassuming, but their play reflected the personality of the Mainland soccer program — consistent, skillful, measured, grinding. Mustangs coach Chris Meade was never at a loss for words this season when describing his senior captains, which also included Camryn Dirkes and Alyssa Turner.
“They are both solid players, Julia in the midfield and Sydney is just a rock in the backfield with her ability to read plays. And her basic instincts of when to step to a ball has been her strength throughout the last couple of years. Anticipation is one of those things that can’t really be taught,” Meade said. “As much as they are similar, their games are different. One is more defensive minded and takes pride in that, and the other one is more offensive minded and loves to go forward, which is why we had her in the midfield. They are both hard working and leaders by example. They really stepped up this year in their roles as captains, along with Camryn and Alyssa.”
“We used each other as a support system,” Sydney said. “Freshman year and sophomore year, when she got hurt, I was there for her. And junior year she got hurt again, so it was nice to have each other to keep ourselves in check and make sure we were always OK mentally. It was awesome that I got to play soccer for four years with my sister.”
“My career was a roller coaster. Freshman year, playing with all the older girls, I didn’t get as much playing time as I wanted but we had a great season, and it was so fun and such a great experience playing with the older girls and building chemistry with some of the girls who are seniors now, like Camryn and Sydney,” Julia added. “It was great to see us grow throughout the years, and my senior year was probably my best season just because of the confidence and the chemistry. You could definitely see the determination we had when we were playing against teams like Ocean City. We wanted to keep this season going, we didn’t want it to end. (Soccer) was the biggest part of my high school experience just because it’s something I’m really passionate about, and every season I just wanted us to go as far as we could. Just putting all that time in during the preseason and over the summer, it was so worth it. My senior year was definitely one to remember.”
Mainland’s season got off to a decent start. By the end of September the Mustangs were 5-2-1, but suffered a tough 1-0 loss against Absegami to close out the first month of action. But in mid-October things turned around dramatically, as Mainland knocked off rival Ocean City, 1-0, on a goal by Dirkes in the waning seconds of double overtime at Carey Stadium. That victory snapped a 40-plus game unbeaten streak by the Red Raiders.
“I can’t even describe how I felt after that game. It was a great game. When we played them earlier in the season they had the majority of the play, I’ll give them that, but I think we had to think about what we could do better when we played them again. When we played them (in October) and Cam scored the goal in the final seconds, that was something that was well deserved. That shot was amazing, and people might say it was lucky, but I think it was a well-deserved win,” Julia said. “We lost to Absegami and that was a turning point. The practices leading up to the end of the season, and even in the games, we were more determined. Everyone was giving 100 percent. We knew this was it, and we didn’t know when our last game was going to be, so why not make it count and just play as hard as we could? I think that was the big reason we were so successful.”
Mainland met Ocean City two more times, losing 2-0 in the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship game but returning the favor when it counted most, in the state playoffs. In the sectional semifinals, the Stangs got a goal from Julia to tie the game, 1-1, and Mainland outlasted the Raiders after two overtime periods and a penalty kick shootout.
The same scenario played out in the South Jersey Group 3 title game, as Dirkes scored a second-half goal to send the game against Lacey into overtime. This time, however, Mainland came out on the short end of a PK shootout.
“Honestly, if you look at the makeup of how they stepped up in specific games — against Ocean City, in the games we played well — their personalities and their style and their grit was the makeup of our team. Not super flashy, but consistent, hardworking and skillful — I think that was the true fiber of what we had this year,” Meade said. “We weren’t going to super-impress anybody, but from top to bottom we were a strong group and on any given day we could have beaten any team.”
“The semifinals against Ocean City was a big game for me because I scored and that gave me a lot of confidence and excitement,” Julia said. “Going into PKs was very nerve-wracking, but it was worth it in the end. You could see everyone on the field so determined to win. And against Lacey, we didn’t get the outcome we wanted, but I wouldn’t take back any second of that game. We all played so hard. It didn’t come out the way we wanted it, but I don’t regret anything about that game.”
“It was so fun, and exciting to go to double overtime and then a PK shootout. And coming back in the last few minutes of the second half to take it to overtime was awesome. We all worked so hard and you could see it in that game. We were the underdogs, but we held our own and we made it that far, and that was an unbelievable feeling,” Sydney added. “In the beginning of the season, we had a had a whole new defense and had to kind of start over. But by the end of the year we got more momentum and got more confident in each other. You could see that in the semifinal game. Facing a player like Ocean City’s Summer Reimet, we definitely had to trust each other and build off each other, and by the end of the year we were doing that so much better.”
Both Julia and Sydney said they put a lot of stock into their senior year, and tried to enjoy every moment of it, knowing they likely won’t be playing soccer in college.
“The most important part of my career was this season because it’s my last time ever playing soccer, so I really appreciated every second that I played,” Julia said. “I knew this was it, so my confidence and the way I played was so much better than in other years because I knew this was it. I was playing for something more than just a game, I was playing for the biggest part of my high school career.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays