High school girls soccer

Competitive by nature, coach Messer has state championship pedigree

Longtime mathematics teacher has guided Windjammers to three straight state Class A titles
By Mark Haskell | Nov 30, 2018
Photo by: Mark Haskell Camden Hills girls varsity soccer coach Meredith Messer has her hands full with the Windjammers' three state Class A championship gold balls.

Rockport — Since she was a young girl, Meredith Messer had little to no chance of emerging without an overly competitive disposition.

Her father, Dana Hews, was a former Presque Isle High School boys basketball coach and was instrumental in bringing soccer to the state in the 1960s.

Her older brother, Brianm coached the Van Buren girls soccer team and led the Crusaders to three state crowns.

And she, then as Meredith Hews, knew well what it would take to win a state title as she, as a student-athlete, helped lead her alma mater, Washburn High School, to back-to-back state Class D basketball titles during her sophomore and junior years.

It would be a long and winding road between state titles for Messer as 27 years passed from when she and the Beavers hoisted the gold ball in 1989 at the Bangor Auditorium and when she, in her 21st year as the Camden Hills Regional High School girls soccer coach, led the Windjammers to their first state Class A crown at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.

But it was her competitive nature and drive to get the most out of herself and players — in addition to her ability to adapt and change with the times — that helped the Windjammers not only to their state title win in 2016, but in stringing together an impressive three-peat as the Windjammers sailed to state crowns in 2017 and 2018.

Championships as player and coach

The team also continues to enjoy a lengthy unbeaten streak — which now stands at 51 games — spanning back to 2016.

In her coaching career, Messer has amassed a 245-94-24 record (.723 winning percentage) and five Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championships, two in Class B and three in Class A over the past three seasons.

In 23 seasons, Messer's teams have missed the regional playoffs only four times.

Then as Meredith Hews, Messer was a 1990 graduate of Washburn High School, where she played soccer, basketball and softball for the Beavers and won two state Class D girls basketball championships during her sophomore and junior seasons.

She was the starting point guard for Washburn her junior year and, along with sister Sue Hews (now Sue Ruiz) in the backcourt, helped lead the Beavers to a 47-42 win over Buckfield in Bangor. The previous year, with Messer as a role player, the Beavers earned a 51-43 win over Valley of Bingham in the state final in Augusta.

While soccer and basketball piqued her interest more than softball, Messer played the latter more out of a sense of obligation as “the school was so small they needed all the girls to play. I was a good bunter,” she said.

Planting seeds for coaching legacy

From Washburn, Messer went onto the University of New England for one year, before transferring to the University of Maine in Farmington for the final three years of her college career after deciding she wanted to pursue a career in teaching instead of physical therapy.

“I was good at soccer [in high school], but I didn’t really develop my passion for soccer until I went to college," she said.

During her one year of playing for the Nor’Easters, Messer’s love for soccer went to another level, as did her overall understanding of the sport.

“My high school experience was you played [soccer] and you put the fast people in the front and the slow people in the back and it was more just a warmup for basketball because ‘The County’ is such a basketball community,” she said. “And so I learned so much my freshman year in college about the sport. It was a really good experience for me.”

“It was my first experience having a coach that was very strategic and we did different things for different teams.”

Offense to defense

Messer recalled during her freshman year — she scored 10 goals that season — where her coach implemented a strategy against Green Mountain College of Poultney, Vt.

“The strategy was I was the only one allowed to go over the half,” she said. “I knew that for 80 minutes they were going to serve the ball [to me] and I had to run and try to make something happen. Because he knew we couldn’t hang with them. They were just that much better. And they scored a PK on a handball and they won 1-0.”

After a year on offense at UMF, her coach asked her to switch to defense as a junior, which, as it turned out, was her more natural position.

“I was like, ‘OK, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but if you want to teach me I’ll do it,’ ” she said. “And so I did, and it felt like coming home. It was comfortable and I remember thinking, ‘Oh this is where I should have been,’ I’d just never had the opportunity to try it.”

Speed on the other side of the ball is something Messer has preached in recent years as a coach, and has been a key component in the Windjammers' back-to-back-to-back state championships.

“When I went back to the back line, I wasn’t just kicking the ball out of bounds,” she said. “I was able to serve it. I love that part of defenders being the first line of attack. It’s your job to serve to the next person in line and start the offensive attack.”

Interestingly enough, many of Messer’s defenders this season, notably seniors Eve Gutheinz, Sarah Spizzuoco and Grace Blackwell, formerly thrived on offense in earlier parts of their playing careers, the former of whicm as late as last season.

“Eve totally changed her position this year [from forward], and I got that,” said Messer. “I got that fear and anxiety on not really knowing what to do and how to get comfortable. We had a lot of talks and I told her during preseason, ‘This is going to be a month-long journey for you. Ask as many questions as you need to.’ ”

"The only place I've ever worked"

Messer graduated from UMF in 1994 with a degree in secondary education mathematics and shortly thereafter, accepted her first job — the job she still holds — as a math teacher at then Camden-Rockport High School.

“This is the only place I’ve ever worked,” she said.

Messer was the girls junior varsity coach for two seasons under then-head coach Rich Roberts for the 1994 and 1995 seasons before becoming the varsity coach in 1996.

Messer knew nothing about the area before taking the position as a math teacher.

“I just knew they wanted to give me a job,” she said. “I had probably had seven or eight interviews and heard a lot of ‘Nos.’ ”

The then Camden-Rockport High School was her last interview before she planned to go coach at a girls soccer camp in Fayetteville, N.C. before she got the call that she had landed the job.

“I was just excited to be gainfully employed,” she said. “I don’t know where I’d be [if they hadn’t called].”

Growing pains .. .lead to positive gains

Messer said that Winslow annually was a top contender in her early years as coach, largely, in her estimation, due to the fact that the Black Raiders had access to one of the only indoor facilities in the area, Sukee Arena.

“The Winslow girls were always tough because they had access to that year-round play,” she said. “I just remember always telling my kids ‘You haven’t touched a soccer ball since last October.’ It would take us eight weeks to get our touch back and to get our flow and our rhythm and be at our best because the girls we coached back then, a lot of them were three-sport athletes and once they were done soccer they’d move to basketball and that was all they did.”

Early on, at times, Messer would, admittedly, have “immature kind of moments” in coaching, and would have trouble “motivating players in a positive way.”

“I’m really, really lucky that I’ve been able to stay coaching,” she said. “When I was 22, 23, 24, I had those tantrum moments. Where I’d say ‘If you guys don’t want to be here, why am I here?’ And I’d stomp off the field.”

“A lot of coaches stay for a year or two and then they go and they move on,” she said. “Or parents get upset and the next thing you know they’re not there anymore. I just feel really lucky that I’ve had good athletic directors and parents who support me through the good and the bad and have allowed me to grow.”

Messer led Camden-Rockport — or Camden Hills as it would become in 2000 — to two regional championship games, falling to Ellsworth in 1998 and to Bucksport in 2002.

The Windjammers always were competitive and in the mix as one of the top teams in what was then known as Eastern Class B, but could never get over the hump.

Windjammers sail into Class A

Then, in 2015, the Windjammers entered unchartered waters — namely, the Class A ranks — where Messer admitted feeling apprehensive about the move up.

“I remember feeling really uncomfortable,” she said. “I don’t know what to expect, or if the level is going to be that much better. I only kind of lived in my ‘B’ bubble. I’d pay attention to ‘B’ teams and I’d know what was going on in Southern ‘B,’ so when it came to ‘A,’ the girls were kind of upset because they felt like they’d be one of the better teams in ‘B.’ They thought they were poised to finally get there [to a state final]. It took a little work to convince them that, here’s an opportunity for us to have an adventure.”

That adventure led the Windjammers to an undefeated regular season, a berth in the KVAC Class A title game and a regional championship berth.

“I had no idea we would go undefeated in the regular season,” she said. “That blew my mind.”

In fact, Camden Hills has lost only one regular-season game in its last four years in Class A — a 3-2, Sept. 20, 2016 home loss to Bangor.

Messer said she had several teams good enough to get to the state finals, most notably her 2012 team led by midfielders Kristina Alex and Caroline Matteo.

“That crew had the passion and the desire,” she said. “They did Pen Bay Soccer and all that. But they didn’t have access to year-round technical training like they do now at the PITCH. Had they had the access? Their outcome could have been different. That crew, soccer was their passion.”

Domination begins, indoors and out

The PITCH, or the Penobscot Bay Indoor Turf and Community Hub, opened in 2014 and has been a game-changer for teams in the Midcoast, most notably the Windjammer girls.

The PITCH is run by Robbie and Tammy Krul, who have two daughters, Kassie and Kaylyn, on the Windjammer girls soccer team. The duo also runs the Dutch Soccer Academy, which many Windjammer players are involved in and play soccer year-round.

Messer said the fact that her players have developed “an increased passion for the sport” has been perhaps the biggest difference in the program’s recent run.

“I don’t think that has anything to do with me,” she said. “But I’ve got girls who play more, watch more, are more deeply invested and have a bigger desire to get better at it. That’s a huge piece.”

That, and the PITCH, which has benefited the program a great deal in terms of player development.

Messer adapts, changes as talent level rises

“The last five or six years the way I’ve coached has been different because of players coming in at a different level,” she said. “The last three or four years, it’s been more about how do I blend their talents to maximize them as a group.”

“I gave them a new drill and I just let them hash it out for about 25 minutes in a practice, and they were going nuts with each other about how to make it work. And we ended up doing that at our last practice, because they had so much fun with it because they were challenged.”

Messer added, in the second half of her coaching career, she has matured a great deal and “I’ve learned how to design opportunities to enjoy being together [as a team] and I've learned how to let go a little bit of the control and I started to really think about how to foster a group personality.”

“Things that are fun and goofy and allow them just to enjoy being together and realizing that’s an important part of the dynamic of the group,” she said. “Whereas when I was younger, it was all business.”

Some of those things include building human pyramids with the entire team, to spelling out letters of the alphabet with their bodies.

“They like to have a good time and be silly and fun, and I had to figure out how to let that happen in my practices so that I could foster their unity as a group. But I wouldn’t be as effective as a coach now, if I hadn’t had those experiences as a coach when I was young.”

While her practices are more fun than they were perhaps for previous teams, some things never change. The practices are rigidly-structured for time and always with an end-goal in mind.

“For me, there’s a goal and everything you do should be to achieve that goal. Another thing I’ve gotten better at is communicating with kids about how I’m thinking, whereas before maybe I didn’t think that was as important. I’ll tell kids I have a three-week plan, a three-month plan and I have a three-year plan. I’m thinking all of those things. So when I put certain kids together in a game, it’s so that next year when they’re starting together as a unit, they have experience with each other as well as having them ready in case something happens at the end of the season or someone gets hurt. Communication is a big part of being a successful coach as well. You have to be honest with kids, but you also have to let them know to a certain degree why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

"I'm competitive across the board"

Messer said she views coaching “as a constant outlet for my desire to challenge myself.” But, that desire never really fades. In fact, “I’m competitive across the board.”

“[My husband] Marty and I play Scrabble, and we keep track,” she said. “We have a notebook from like the last 20 years just playing Scrabble matches. We’re just competitive people.”

It clearly runs in the family, as was evident when Messer’s brother, Brian, brought their father, Dana, to Camden Hills’ girls soccer semifinal game against Bangor and the regional final against Messalonskee.

“He and I were kind of joking because he brought my dad down to see the [playoff] games with Messalonskee and Bangor this year. And I said, ‘Geez Brian, I’m about to tie you!’ And he said, ‘Well I’ve been to five.’ And then I said, ‘Well I’ve never lost one.’ "

”That competitive edge is definitely in my family,” she said with a laugh.

Messer has three children, Charlotte, who is a sophomore at the University of Maine and on the women’s soccer team, along with Casey, a sophomore, and Quincy, who is a seventh-grader.

In fact, it was Charlotte who scored the game-winning goal in a 1-0 overtime win over Gorham to cement Camden Hills’ first state championship.

Messer said, “You couldn’t script it any better.”

"She’s been such a steady, hard-working player for four years,” she said. “Sometimes I think I take for granted how solid she is, so I’m just really happy for her that she had that special moment to celebrate and enjoy all of her work.”

When will veteran coach hang up whistle?

Messer said that season, her 21st, was supposed to be her last.

“I was planning to be done when Charlotte graduated and I had let the kids know that,” she said. “We went into the season knowing that was going to be my last year and Casey was coming into high school. And I’d mentally prepared for that.”

“That season took a lot out of me. And I don’t know if it is because all the girls that were on that team were at my house for sleepovers since they were 10. I had a deep level of investment emotionally. I wanted it so much for them.”

But, after the endorsement of her older son and her husband — the latter of whom is the varsity coach for the Belfast boys basketball team — Messer returned to coaching.

And her team has not lost a game since.

As far as her team’s win streak — the last time the Windjammers lost a game, Barack Obama was four months shy of finishing up his second term as the 44th President of the United States — Messer said, “I don’t even think about it.”

“I don’t know if the girls do or not, but I don’t,” she said. “We take each season separately. We look at each season and say, ‘OK who’s our toughest competition going to be, and are we going to be ready for that match when it happens.’ For me it’s game-by-game.”

And, at this point, in terms of Messer continuing to coach, it’s year-by-year.

“We’ll see where next year leads,” she said. “At some point my time is going to be done, and I’m OK with that. I feel much better being flexible about it and making sure I feel good as a mom.”

Comments (1)
Posted by: Lynne McAvoy | Dec 02, 2018 07:45

Congratulations, Meredith!  This article was very enjoyable to read.  Kudos to you and 'your' girls!


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