Ahearn, Stratford enjoying remarkable playoff run
With everything that has keyed a dazzling postseason run for Stratford’s girls soccer team, the rise of junior Lauren Ahearn as a playoff sensation has perhaps been most inspiring.
The dynamic forward has six goals in three playoff games. Overall, Ahearn has 16 goals and 11 assists this season. But it was as recently as last season when Ahearn’s confidence was shattered and doubt controlled every thought, every move.
“I’m a better player because I trust myself,” Ahearn said. “Last season, I was all in my head and in a funk. Now, I couldn’t be happier.”
Ahearn said she has learned to let go of negative thoughts during games. There was a time she didn’t believe in herself. She would miss a shot and immediately start overthinking things, her mind beating up instincts and emotions.
“As if it was the biggest mistake of my life,” she said.
Those thoughts begot sloppy, tense play. Eventually, they became too much.
So Ahearn started going to sessions with sports performance coach Ashley Eckermann, who has been essential in establishing a healthier approach and mentality. Eckermann attends to all types of athletes, from high school to the professional ranks to Olympians.
Eckermann taught Ahearn to create an alter ego for herself. It allows the individual to be tougher, stronger, assertive and more confident.
Ahearn’s is “Lazer Lauren.”
“Lazer represents my speed, and it reminds me to utilize it on the field,” Ahearn said.
Whether Lazer or Lauren, Ahearn has been unstoppable when her team has needed her most. She has four goals in the last two games and helped Stratford to the regional tournament for the first time since 2013.
The Spartans (19-3-4) play Beaumont West Brook in the regional semifinals 2 p.m. Friday at Abshier Stadium in Deer Park.
“For Lauren, it’s all about the confidence,” third-year coach David Walters said. “You can see it. It doesn’t matter if she misses a shot, there’s never a head-down, woe-is-me moment. She’s fearless and she’s got a short memory. Last year, things lingered and ate at her. She’s hitting the ball with confidence and power instead of trying to place everything like last year.”
Ahearn can strike with either foot. She has a “motor that doesn’t quit,” Walters said. She is faster than fast.
“She believes in herself,” Walters said. “She’s really catching fire at the right time.”
Stratford is one of the more admirable stories of the soccer playoffs. The Spartans finished fourth in district play last season but made an unexpected run to the regional quarterfinals.
There has been nothing surprising about this season.
“I think the kids knew all along that we were capable of making a deep run,” Walters said.
Stratford is 19-3-4 this season and in the regional tournament for the first time since 2013.VYPE Media
This season, the Spartans won the District 17-6A championship and are having their best playoff run at the 6A level. They were a 4A program when they made their regional tourney run nine years ago.
“I would describe this season as trust,” Ahearn said. “The bonds we all have with each other is something that makes our team better. It’s being able to know that whoever loses the ball, they will work hard to get it back in our possession.”
Stratford is a deeper team this year, thanks to five freshmen playing beyond their years. Ryann Weber, Whitney Bui and Mary Paul, in particular, have been essential as reserves. Because of their energy and playmaking, there is not a dropoff in play when Walters goes to his bench.
“We have had quality practice sessions because of how they push the starters,” Walters said.
Senior Rileigh Toner has been invaluable, on and off the field. The center midfielder is not only a dependable attacker, but also a reliable teammate whom Walters likes to affectionately call a “mother duckling.”
“She’s going to be named the District MVP, so her play has been outstanding,” Walters said. “But one of the main reasons the freshmen have all excelled is because she’s taken them all under her wing. She remembers her freshman year on varsity when the senior class wasn’t very nice and there wasn’t a whole lot of bonding. Since I’ve gotten here, we worked on that attitude, and she’s really made it her mission to make others feel comfortable.”
The Spartans know they’re making history. They’re having fun while doing so. It’s a group that enjoys being around each other and is showing off a tendency to shine when the lights are brightest.
“We are capable of anything,” Ahearn said. “Also, we know no matter how far we go into the playoffs, we will take away knowing we tried our hardest and left our hearts on the field. The farther we go into the playoffs, the more realistic the future looks. We just want to do our best and capitalize when we need to.”