SULLIVAN — An hour after the bell rang Tuesday afternoon to dismiss classes at Sumner Memorial High School, the parking lot was as full as ever.
Rather than filling the hallways or the gymnasium at the school, Sumner students, teachers, parents and fans were braving the cold weather at Dennis Harmon Field. The boys’ soccer team was set to play its final game of the regular season against Bucksport, and with emotions running high on Senior Day and the chance to secure a home playoff game on the line, this was a contest no one wanted to miss.
Like most high schools across the United States, Sumner takes great pride in the successes of its athletic programs. This year, though, the enthusiasm has reached a new height as both the boys’ and girls’ teams have established winning cultures that have made Sumner soccer the toast of the sport in Hancock County and a major player in Class C North.
“We’re all like one big family,” said Justin Harding, coach of Sumner’s girls’ team. “Instead of a boys’ team and a girls’ team, we see it as one big soccer team. [The boys] always have just about the whole team out supporting us at every game and practice, and we do the same.”
Of the 93 programs in Maine to offer both boys’ and girls’ soccer at the Class C level or above, only Mount View and Monmouth have combined for more wins in the sport this season than Sumner’s 23. Both Sumner teams are undefeated in October thus far, and the two are a combined 19-1-1 since Sept. 15.
“It took a while to build up the soccer culture here, but it was something we knew we could do and were all committed to doing,” said Rick Dube, who served as the boys’ team’s previous head coach before transitioning to athletic director over the summer. “It’s been great to see everybody so enthusiastic about it and embracing it like they have.”
Sumner’s boys’ team, which finished its regular season with a 13-1 record Tuesday afternoon, has been on a track to success for some time. The Tigers made the Class C North quarterfinals as a young team two years ago and entered this fall with high hopes after a nine-win campaign last season.
So far this year, Sumner has outscored its opponents 113-19 for an average victory margin of 6.7 goals. The Tigers have reached or surpassed the 10-goal mark in five contests this year and have scored fewer than four goals in a game just once, a 2-1 home loss to Lee Academy that snapped an eight-game winning streak to begin the season.
Nearly half of Sumner’s goals have come from one source: junior Damon Warren. Warren, who broke former Bangor Christian standout Brad Wilcox’s single-season scoring record of 44 goals when he scored his first of the game against Narraguagus last Wednesday in Harrington, extended his total to 49 with two goals in Sumner’s 6-1 victory over the Golden Bucks.
Whereas the Sumner boys entered the year coming off a promising 2017 campaign, the girls’ team was tasked with engineering a significant turnaround after posting an 0-9-5 record last season. The Tigers’ start to 2018 wasn’t much better, as the team was winless through its first three games.
After settling for a 1-1 draw with Deer Isle-Stonington on Sept. 14, though, the Tigers reeled off 10 consecutive wins to surge from 13th place to fourth in the Class C North standings. The team concluded its regular season with a record of 10-2-2 after a scoreless draw against Narraguagus on Monday.
“It was hard at first, but we knew we had to fight our way back,” freshman Rachel Colby said. “Once we started playing together as a team and showing more determination, we started to play well and win.”
Although Sumner’s turnaround under Harding has been notable, the first-year coach has refused to take credit for it. He has instead deflected that praise onto his players, who will be playing in the team’s first regional quarterfinal game in five years next week.
“It’s not about me or what I’ve done at all,” Harding said. “The girls are the ones who are out there playing their tails off every game and always finding that way to win a game every time. The talent and potential was always there, and it was just about them believing and turning that potential into results.”
Both Sumner teams will return to action when they play in the Class C North quarterfinals next week. The fourth-ranked boys will look for revenge against Lee Academy (7-6-1) when they host the No. 5 Pandas at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 23, and the No. 4 girls will be on the road against fifth-seeded Central (8-4-2) at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24.
Although the Tigers, like all teams do, will experience some turnover when the year ends, both teams are built to last. That’s because key players such as Caelan Billings, Silas Goldfarb, Alex Rumill and Warren will return for the boys next year, and Colby, Lexi Coombs and Skylar Soule are set to come back for the girls. Winning in the playoffs would help those players and their teams build strong foundations for future seasons.
“We’ve talked a lot about embracing challenges as a team, and getting that shot at a playoff win is one of those challenges,” Harding said. “Both of our teams at Sumner have a lot to be proud about. It’s an exciting time for them and everybody at the school.”