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Howard: Heffernan named coach of the year

Nicholas Heffernan has been selected as the 4A girls' soccer coach of the year, and it was a clear-cut choice


Tribe head coach Nicholas Heffernan talks with his team moments after claiming the 2013 4A girls soccer title. Heffernan was named as the 4A girls' soccer coach of the year this week.Ever since his first day on the job as the new Scappoose High School girls' soccer coach, Nicholas Heffernan has deflected praise toward the girls on his team.

Now he'll have a much harder time passing the buck.

Heffernan was selected as the 4A girls' soccer coach of the year, capping off an incredible first season in Scappoose in which he led the Indians to a 15-3 record and the first state title in school history for soccer.

   Things didn't start off smoothly. Heffernan knew he'd stepped into a position where he had limitless talent at his disposal and a strong history of success in recent years, but the three of the first four games ended as ugly losses for an Indian team that, the previous fall, had reached the state semifinals before being upset by Gladstone.

Scappoose gave up five goals to La Salle in the season opener, and were shut out by Gladstone and Oregon Episcopal, losing nearly as many goalkeepers as matches in the early going.

At that point, it could have been easy for Heffernan to change his mindset. Maybe this isn't quite a championship team. Maybe they need an extra year of experience.

Then Scappoose finally broke through. They scored an 8-2 win over Banks, and beat Seaside 2-0 for their first shutout of the year.

Now, the Indians were scoring at will. They entered their first round playoff match holding a 10-game winning streak, and promptly flattened Cascade 7-1.

Then it was a 2-1 heart stopper against defending-champion Gladstone, followed by a 3-1 victory over La Salle in the semifinals.

I'm not sure that Heffernan really ever had a prolonged moment of doubt.

He used to joke that he could just give the girls a ball and they'd step on to the pitch and do it all themselves, and while there's a thread of honesty in that, the way he coaches gave him a unique perspective.

Unlike many coaches who spend their time on the sidelines shouting instructions, he actually gets on the field and plays. He said he's always involved with practices, and in the offseason he plays with a number of clubs around the Portland area.

“I can still run about and keep up,” he laughed.

His presence on the field forced the team to push themselves mentally and physically. Instead of teaching the game or working extensively on basic technique, he said he saw his efforts as ‘fine tuning' rather than starting from scratch.

It made a massive difference. In the past, the team's success had been built on the speed and skill of players like Ariel Viera, who would collect a long direct pass and beat a player or two in the box for an easy goal. This team follows the trend that has swept through womens' soccer around the globe: keep the ball, and play possession.

Instead of ‘boot and run' as Heffernan calls it, Scappoose began patiently working the ball up the middle from the back line. As the season wore on, the word got out: Lucy Davidson, the unassuming sophomore midfielder, “she's dangerous.” But double her, and she'll send a pass off to one of her streaking forwards, and they'll score regardless.

The system worked, and worked well. When Heffernan made the statement midseason that he believed his girls could beat any team in the state, it seemed premature. Then, they went on to win the next 10+ games, including the state title match over La Grande, and did it all without losing composure or control in any of their matches.

The community seemed to notice as well, and the match against Gladstone was packed with hundreds of spectators to watch Scappoose take on their heated rivals.

“That match against Gladstone... it was the most enjoyable game I've ever watched,” said Heffernan, who spoke of the closeness and support he felt from the city, saying that it made him want to return and continue witnessing the success of the team he led for the past season.

And for the sake of the program and the town, I certainly hope that's a long-lasting relationship. It's a brand of soccer that's tough to beat, and though they won't score 20 goals a match, they won't lose often, either. The girls have a deft touch with the ball, an air of cool confidence and the talent to wrap up several titles in a row, if things shake out well.

They've already committed two – Lucy Davidson and Natalie Muth – to the illustrious Portland Pilots womens' soccer team, and I can't help but think there will be one or two more college-bound players before this group of sophomores moves on.

But for now, this moment is about Heffernan. It's an incredible feat to walk in to a new city, new school, new team and new environment and, at 26 years old, turn an excellent program into a championship program. It's exactly as he said before the season began: the girls deserved a state title, and he brought them one.

Cheers, mate.

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