By Paul Augeri
DURHAM – Coginchaug sorely needed help in the defensive end this season, and it didn’t take long for soccer coach Megan Kavanaugh to tell Isabel “Izzy” Milardo she was the one.
Milardo is a four-year varsity player and a Blue Devils co-captain. A natural forward, Milardo is a power runner, fast and physical, with a big right foot and a competitive streak. She is a threat to score each time Coginchaug mounts a rush in an opponent’s end.
She also plays center field and bats leadoff for the softball team. In other words, she is an athlete, one who has value to her teams just by being on the field of play, regardless of position.
This year, Milardo began her final soccer season 15 goals shy of the school record for career goals established in 2012 by Victoria Buonanni. At the very least, the mark was within Milardo’s reach.
Kavanaugh though, had to shore up the defense.
Contribute to the bigger picture? Or lobby to remain at forward, with a personal milestone at stake?
Milardo did not think twice.
“The team is definitely No. 1,” she said. “I don’t want to be selfish. I just go to wherever she needs me to go, whether it’s goalie, defense, midfield, forward, wherever.”
“She’s not going to put her own kind of priorities in front of the team. And for the freshmen to see your senior captain is willing to play a position she doesn’t know how to play? And is OK with that?”— Coginchaug coach Megan Kavanaugh
Milardo’s willingness to sacrifice a personal objective for the greater good surprised her coach not one bit.
“When I asked her to play in the back, she knew that that meant she might not be able to do that,” Kavanaugh said. “She might have gone home and complained, I don’t know, but she never complained or said anything in front of her teammates. And that was a big thing to ask her to give up (in order to) help her team out.
“And she never questioned it. She just did it. That, to me, is the most remarkable part of this whole thing.”
Milardo has spent more time this season on defense than at forward for Coginchaug (10-6-1). The Blue Devils were a Class S semifinalist last year and hope to get back there this month. They advanced to the quarterfinals by beating Lyman Memorial 2-0 on Thursday.
“Outside back, up top if we are down or tied late in a game, defense, I played goalie for five minutes versus Portland — I’ve just had to do what the team needed from me,” she said.
While her heart remains at forward, she has enjoyed learning a defensive role and relying on teammates to coach her on the field.
“She’s a player who, when she’s up top, everyone thinks she can score a goal,” said Kavanaugh, who’s spent 14 years as the Blue Devils’ coach. “When we put her in the back, I think our back players and our goalkeeper (Claire DeFlora) felt a lot more comfortable knowing that she was in the back as opposed to me experimenting (with other options), because she’s going to win the ball and she’s going to do something positive with it even though she’s not a defender by nature.
“So just her being on the field provided a lot of confidence for us.”
In turn, senior Ashley Woodward moved up front and has been among the team’s top goal scorers.
“I think Ashley stepping up front alleviated some of the fear that we weren’t going to score goals,” Kavanaugh said. “But if I could clone Izzy and put her in both spots, that would have been awesome.”
Milardo scored her ninth goal of the season in Tuesday’s Class S first-round win over MLC and added her 10th in Thursday’s quarterfinal win, giving her 43 for her career, five behind Buonanni’s school record. If she remained at forward full time, player and coach believe getting to 48 and beyond was more than doable.
“Our upperclassmen all knew that’s just the kind of kid she is,” Kavanaugh said. “She’s not going to put her own kind of priorities in front of the team. And for the freshmen to see your senior captain is willing to play a position she doesn’t know how to play? And is OK with that? Then seeing her do it made it a lot easier for them to do it (if asked).”
This wasn’t the first time Milardo has changed positions. In her sophomore season, Kavanaugh needed a goalie. Milardo was up for it.
“I know she wasn’t thrilled about it, because she wants to be up top and score goals, but she’s never going to complain about that,” Kavanaugh said. “She wants to be on the field and she wants to win, and she wants to do whatever it takes to make that happen.”
Milardo believes her teammates were grateful for her readily embracing a new role for the betterment of the team, and she’s just thankful for being a big part of the program.
“Coginchaug soccer has done a lot for me,” she said. “I have definitely made some of my best friendships on this team. Being in this program has taught me how to work hard. Even during my freshman and sophomore seasons, when we didn’t make the Shoreline or state tournament, we all worked as hard as we could.”
“I’m very sad about this,” she added. “I’ve been on the team for four years and this will be the last time I’ll probably ever play soccer again. This program, and softball too, have brought out the best in me.”
Come next season, when Kavanaugh doesn’t have Izzy Milardo to lean on, she will draw on the example she set for those who come after her. For the betterment of the team.
“You get a lot of forwards who are good athletes who could play every position, but the mental part of knowing ‘I’m giving up something really big for me in order to make my team better,’ that was the part that is most impressive about her,” Kavanaugh said. “She just gets it.”