SWAMPSCOTT- When new Swampscott girls soccer coach Alvi Ibanez took over the program in August, the former Salem State soccer star didn’t know what type of season to expect from the Big Blue.
Swampscott was coming off a 17-2-1 season under former coach Ken Leeder but a handful of the 2016 players graduated from the team. Three months later, Ibanez and the Big Blue find themselves in the Division 3 North final with emerging stars such as Haley Bernhardt leading the charge.
Bernhardt, a junior forward, has given Ibanez and the Big Blue a season to remember this fall. In 21 games, Bernhardt has scored 38 goals and dished six assists to propel the Big Blue to a 12-7-2 record. Her 38 goals this fall stand firm as a program record for most scored in a season.
“Haley’s a very determined player,” Ibanez said. “She’s very committed to the sport and making herself a better soccer player with every play. When she makes a mistake, she’s committed to correcting her error. It’s that drive and that dedication that really makes her a great player.”
Prior to the start of the season, Ibanez needed to gain familiarity with his new players. While his main focus was on teaching the team to prevent scoring chances, and generate them, he began to take notice of Bernhardt’s abilities early on in the preseason.
“I wanted to prevent opponents from scoring on us and work on us scoring on the opponents,” Ibanez said. “Those were my focuses as new coach. When we went through our traditional training sessions in the preseason, I realized that she thinks like a forward and has that type of mentality. Haley and Mackenzie Kearney work really well together.”
Coming into the season, Bernhardt didn’t expect the type of success she has seen this fall. She dedicated herself to a rigorous offseason training regimen to prepare for the season and credits her hard work as the key to her historic year.
“I didn’t expect this at all,” Bernhardt said. “I’ve worked really hard this summer and I’ve noticed a difference. I can feel a difference in my game and all of that hard work in the offseason has paid off.”
Swampscott powered its way through a tough Northeastern Conference schedule en route to a 9-7-2 record at the end of the regular season. That earned the Big Blue the No. 11 seed in the Division 3 state tournament. Swampscott ousted North Reading in the first round, Weston in the quarterfinals and Austin Prep in the semifinals.
“At first we had a rough beginning to the season,” Bernhardt, who serves as a team captain, said. “We bonded together and we started to win some games. We had tough games against really good teams like Danvers and Peabody. We tied Peabody 3-3 in the last game of the regular season and that showed us a lot. We’ve bonded together and played really well since then.”
The team’s positive attitude, Bernhardt noted, has also been important throughout its tournament run.
“We’ve started being positive as a team,” Bernhardt said. “That was tough during the middle of the season but it’s working well for us. Our backline is really solid, our midfield is holding up and we’re connecting. We’re gelling as a team and that’s working for us.”
Although the levels of play and intensity increase during the state tournament, Ibanez hasn’t seen his team back away from the challenge. The first-year coach has been pleasantly surprised by Swampscott’s ability to remain focused and rise to the challenges brought on by tournament opponents.
“The speed and intensity of play changes in the tournament,” Ibanez said. “This group is focused and our players want to win. Whatever adjustments we make, we welcome them and the players adjust to them well. The biggest weakness for us is that I’m new to the program and the program’s new to me. That was our biggest challenge.”
Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Austin Prep in the semifinals carried extra meaning for Bernhardt and the Big Blue. Last season, Swampscott fell in the semis to North Reading in a 1-0 PK defeat. In 2015 the Big Blue fell to Bishop Fenwick in the semis, again with a 1-0 loss.
“We were all really excited,” Bernhardt said. “It was supposed to be a growth year for us. We were all shocked and really proud of ourselves. We wanted it and it felt great to achieve it. It was just great to watch it happen.
“For all of us this has meant a lot,” Bernhardt added. “We haven’t been able to make it this far. I know it means a lot to the seniors on our team because they get to end their high school careers with a great run. For me personally, I’m just proud to be a part of it and hope to keep moving further.”
Now Swampscott shifts its focus to preparing for Sunday night’s final against No. 5 Newburyport at Manning Field. Bernhardt’s confident that if Swampscott stays positive, a positive result will be the outcome.
“We know that both teams are going to be really good,” Bernhardt said. “We need to keep our level of play and stay positive. When we’re on, we’re on and we believe that. We need to make sure we stick together and stay positive so that we get a positive outcome.”