Their glorious run had to end sometime. The George Mason boys’ soccer team — three-time defending Virginia 2A state champions, winners of 44 straight games, conquerors of every hapless foe in its way — seemed due for a decline this spring.
The vaunted Mustangs graduated five starters from last year’s squad that finished 26-0. Gone was first team All-Met center back Ned Quill, along with two other defenders who started all four years, a two-year goalkeeper and a three-year mainstay in midfield. Finally, George Mason was going to come back down to Earth.
“Honestly I thought this year we were going to have a big slip-up,” George Mason Coach Frank Spinello said.
It didn’t take long for the Mustangs to kick their coach’s worries into oblivion. Just three games into the 2016 season, they had already outscored their opponents 22-1. They ran the winning streak up to 59 games, defended their Conference 35 title and took a 9-1 romp over Stuarts Draft into Wednesday night’s 2A East region semifinal against Maggie Walker.
One player in particular has helped keep the dynasty intact this season. Grant Goodwin only has 12 goals on the year — small peas on an offensive juggernaut that’s outscored teams 124-4 so far this season — but stats are not what make the senior midfielder so valuable.
“He’s so multidimensional,” Spinello said. “He gets involved in our attack, so he’s like the focal point there. He’s the focal point of our defense because it’s his responsibility to not let it get to the back four. Set pieces, too. He’s involved in every aspect of the match.”
Without Goodwin, George Mason’s 2A supremacy would come apart at the seams. The 6-foot-3 holding midfielder is the glue that holds everything together, lending uncommon composure to a makeshift back line and dishing smart passes to generate the attack. There’s a reason Goodwin has only subbed out for 20 total minutes this season, even amid all the blowouts.
“I’ve been through all the elimination games three years in a row now, so I know what it takes to win,” said Goodwin, a four-year starter who aims to become the first male soccer player in Virginia High School League history to win four state championships. “I know how to encourage guys and how to calm us down. I think my role is really to just kind of direct the overall flow and tempo of the game.”
Without Quill holding down the fort this year, Spinello knew he needed to groom a new center back. He approached Goodwin and junior forward Wesley Quill before the season’s first scrimmage and basically asked them to flip a coin. Quill, accustomed to bagging goals in the Mustangs’ free-flowing attack last year, volunteered for the job and hasn’t looked back since.
Quill’s versatility pairs nicely alongside the vocal leadership of fellow junior defender Nico Ferrara. Goodwin serves as another line of defense in front of them, constantly barking orders to keep his teammates organized and on task. The result is a measly four goals surrendered all season, just one more than the state record they set last year.
Still, there’s an unsightly chink in the Mustangs’ armor this year. George Mason suffered, of all things, a loss on May 17, falling to William Monroe, 1-0. The defeat snapped their 59-game streak, but it hardly dampened their morale.
“After that loss was probably the proudest I’ve been of this team the whole year,” Spinello said. “We handled it with dignity. Kids weren’t throwing things or acting like spoiled brats. They all had their heads up.”
Few soccer teams are familiar with the mercy rule, which ends games with 20 minutes left in regulation when a team is up by at least eight goals. George Mason knows the scenario well, having mercy-ruled all but five games this season. Donal Reyes de Leon leads the team with 33 goals — including a school-record eight strikes in the Mustangs’ 10-0 romp over Strasburg in April — while fellow senior Elliot Mercado has 31 after racking up 41 goals and 26 assists last year, both school records.
It’s little wonder, then, that their practices take a far harsher toll.
“Guys in practice need to get calmed down a lot,” said Goodwin, who plans to play club soccer at Virginia Tech next year. “They get pretty heated sometimes with slide tackling and stuff. People play really physical. If you’re slacking off in practice, people will let you know.”
So why the grueling 7-on-7 drills in preparation for the 11-on-11 cakewalks? The Mustangs don’t harp on goal totals or margins of victory. They’re concerned chiefly with getting better, with playing the game the right way ahead of stronger playoff opposition. Only then can they uphold the dynasty with a fourth consecutive state crown next weekend at Radford.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to have some tough competition,” Mercado said. “Being able to play with each other is a lot more important than just scoring goals.”