When it comes to dispensing individual awards in a team sport like soccer, stats often rule the day.
That can leave deserving defenders in the lurch. A lockdown center back generally doesn’t attract the same kind of hype as a big-time goal scorer. Honoring those that keep goals out are often overlooked for those that score or create.
But that trend was turned on its head last week.
Hunterdon Central defender Emily Mason was named the Gatorade National Girls High Soccer Player of the Year last Wednesday. Surprised on a video call by U.S. Women’s National Team Player Mal Pugh, her high school coaches appeared behind her to hand her the award.
“There are so many amazing players not only just in New Jersey but in the whole country that I was chosen for girls soccer to represent this, it’s an honorable moment that I won’t forget,” she told TopDrawerSoccer in a phone interview.
Mason, a junior defender, spent the bulk of the season at center back for her high school squad. She led the Red Devils to a 21-1-1 record, and a Group 4 state championship in New Jersey. That included a famous 1-0 win in the state semifinals against rivals Eastern Regional High School, where she scored the winning goal.
For the U.S. youth national team defender, it was just her second season playing in central defense. Primarily an outside back for the U.S. with the Under-20s, she plays on either flank of defense for her club side PDA.
While collecting her thoughts in the aftermath of the award, Mason already planned on using it to continue to put in the work and effort that helped her earn the accolade.
“It motivates me to keep pushing myself to new limits because if I didn’t before, I don’t know if I would’ve gotten this award,” she said.
In many ways, the award capped off what has already been a significant 2019-20 stretch for the defender. Back in October 2019, she was called up to the U.S. Under-18 WNT for a camp in Bradenton, Florida.
That would begin a quick journey to the U.S. U20s. A call-up to the Nike Friendlies last December set the course for her spot on the U.S. U20 WNT for qualifying this past February. All this despite being born in 2002, playing on a team with players two years older than her.
“It happened so quickly, but at the Nike Friendlies I really pushed myself to a level that I wasn’t even sure I had,” Mason explained. “I think that really caught the eye of coaches.”
She called the tournament in the Dominican Republic “a surreal moment” and one of her favorite soccer trips of her career. Despite being the youngest player on the team, Mason made four starts during the team’s seven games, as they won the entire championship, qualifying for the U20 World Cup.
The entire trip was another inspiring experience for the defender as she admired her teammates and tried to soak in as much as she could.
“There are so many good players on that team,” Mason said. “I look up to them and see them, and I’m like ‘I want to be there, when I’m their age.’ So it’s such a motivation, pushing me [to get better] and a good learning experience.”
During the lockdown, Mason has tried to stay sharp from both a fitness and technical perspective. She’s done individual work with the ball, while going on long bike rides with her brothers to work on cardio.
Her senior year lies ahead. She’ll lead Hunterdon Central in its defense of a state title. Then, the PDA product will join several former club teammates at Rutgers, where he’s committed for the class of 2021.
The decision to go there was an easy one.
“The environment that Rutgers gives off, it’s such a family environment,” Mason said. “I really couldn’t picture myself going anywhere else.”
For the time being, seeing her name on a trophy with so many other accomplished athletes leaves her striving to continue to work hard and push herself. After all, the 2019-20 season already showed what she is capable of when she leaves it all on the field.
Image Credit: NJ Advanced Media