The Islesboro Varsity Soccer Team entered uncharted territory this season. And not just remote locations like Greenville, where the Eagles played a number of their away contests. Finishing the regular season in 3rd place in the Western division of Class D for the first time in school history, Islesboro secured a first-round playoff matchup with defending state finalist Richmond in the state quarterfinals this past fall.

As a K-12 school with less than 100 enrolled students, Islesboro Central School is one of the smallest Maine schools to offer varsity sports. Because the high school has only 30 students, the soccer program integrates both boys and girls into one co-ed varsity team. This year, the Islesboro soccer team consisted of 16 student athletes, including three 8th graders, all determined to make a deep run into the Maine state playoffs.

The beginning weeks of preseason and the first couple days of the regular season were a time of assimilation. I was a rookie head coach, having finished my playing career a year earlier at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and was a new resident on the island, having moved to “the rock” in August to begin my new position as an Island Institute fellow. There was skepticism coming from both players and coach: Why is he out here? Does he know what he’s doing? Am I qualified for this? Should I really be coaching?

The uncertainty peaked after the first game of the season; an 8-2 loss that could have been even more lopsided. Players were suddenly questioning our ability as a team, wondering if we had the talent to compete with the upper-echelon teams in our division. The loss helped to remind me as a rookie coach that soccer isn’t about the skill set of each team member, but rather the result of the eleven field players working together as a collective unit.

The importance of team unity is sometimes hard to verbally convey to adolescents, so we achieved it through our soccer practices. In the days and weeks after our opening-day loss, we did everything as a group. The team chemistry began to take shape as we stretched before practice as a team, encouraged each other during conditioning drills and studied game film together.

As the bonds strengthened within the team, the wins started piling up: 3-0 and 7-3 wins against Kennebec Valley, 4-0 and 8-2 wins against Chop Point, and two hard-fought victories against Greater Portland Christian School and Penobscot Bay rival Vinalhaven. The Eagles of Islesboro were flying at an all-time high after battling to a 2-2 tie in the regular season finale and clinching a spot in the Maine state quarterfinals.

Every Islesboro fan, player and coach in attendance that day will remember their feelings of joy and gratification for a long time to come. Sixteen Islesboro students dedicated three months of afternoon practice and 13 regular-season games to sharpen their skills and improve the quality of their team. This perseverance and team-first mentality that was lacking in the beginning days of the season eventually came to identify the Islesboro soccer team.

While eventually losing to Richmond, this year’s state runner-up, in the quarterfinals, the tight-knit group of islanders walked off the field holding their heads high, knowing they had just completed one of the most successful seasons in team history. They battled through the ups and downs inherent in every sports season, and though they weren’t victorious against the final opponent, they could be proud of themselves for playing to the best of their ability as one cohesive unit.

James Westhafer is an Island Institute fellow working on Islesboro and coach of both the Varsity Soccer and Basketball teams at Islesboro Central School.