Pictured: Coginchaug senior co-captain Samantha Paul is the Neil’s Donuts Top Performer for October. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri

DURHAM – In order for the Coginchaug girls soccer team to go forward this season, senior Samantha Paul had to give a little.

In preparing for a return to a full schedule and postseason in 2021, and after losing four-year starting goalkeeper Claire DeFlora, Coginchaug coach Megan Kavanaugh knew she had to strengthen the Blue Devils’ back line.

The best way to do that? Ask one of her senior co-captains — a natural center-midfielder and veteran who has a team-first mentality — for help.

Kavanaugh gave Paul a dry run in August.

“I moved her first to see what this would look like,” Kavanaugh said. “I think Sam was nervous at first and it took her a little while to see the value in it.”

After those preseason reps and practices to ease her way into a comfort zone, plus a chat with her coach, it didn’t take long for Paul to fully buy in to her new role.

Sam Paul is still a major factor as a scorer for Coginchaug with seven goals and eight assists. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

“I didn’t question it. I know Kav is always looking out for the best interests of the team and us being better,” said Paul. “I wasn’t sure of her thought process and we did have a talk. We did need more help in the defensive line. She acknowledged why this was the right move, why I need to be back there, and I understood it a lot more. I accepted it.”

Her shift to the defensive end came with a caveat: Paul still has the green light from Kavanaugh to move forward with the attack. As a dual threat – she still gets opportunities to play center-mid — Paul has been a driving force in Coginchaug’s run to another winning season (8-3-2 with two to go) and berths in the Shoreline Conference and state tournaments.

“It was hard to grasp that I’m not going to be in the box for every play and not be on the end of every ball,” Paul said. “But I think Kav has calmed me with the freedom to get forward and get high when it’s available. She’s made it easy for me and more tangible. I still try my best to get up there.

“Sometimes I’ll go up a little too far up and just end up in the box. I can’t hold myself back. When I see an opening, I’ll take it.”

On defense, Paul’s overall experience and soccer IQ have benefitted the underclassmen, all juniors, who do the work with her: Charlotte Dunleavy in the middle and Serena Fournier and Marina Chanthinith on the outside, and by extension, first-year varsity keepers Emma Samperi and Carly Benbow.

On offense, when the situation is right, Paul gets right in the thick of things. She’s been a major factor in the team’s scoring with seven goals and eight assists, the ultimate complement to junior striker Katie Farr (team-high 13 goals, three assists), and senior co-captain Alyssa Woodward, who also can play either in the midfield or in the back.

“With Alyssa back, it’s kind of given us a little bit more freedom with where to put Sam,” Kavanaugh said. “Sam knows that we have a lot of people who do things well and she knows who does ‘well’ well. She’s been an ultimate leader starting in the summer, a vocal leader, someone who this program has kind of been built around for four years. And now it’s her program and she wants to be able to finish on a high note.”

Even with her skill and soccer IQ, there would be a learning curve. At first, Paul relied on Kavanaugh to guide her when she wasn’t sure when to move from the back and into the attack, where she came into her own as a junior. And she’s leaned on her teammates as well.

“In the beginning I would think, ‘Do I stay back?’ She would tell me, ‘Sam, get up a little bit,’” she said. “We looked for chances to me to get forward. Every game I feel like I’ve gotten better and better and more comfortable. The other defenders have helped me out a lot and talked me through where I need to be.”

Over time, Paul has figured it out. Like a catcher in baseball, she has the full view of the field and leads others, much like a film director would.

“When you’re in the field you naturally have to be a leader, you’re at the center of every play,” she said. “Pushing me back to defense, I’m able to see everyone now. I see the midfielders now. I know where they have to be. I’m able to lead my teammates. I’m able to organize. We need a voice to help communicate and help bring the team together, and I encourage people to keep making the runs and making the plays. Allowing me to see the full field is an advantage I didn’t have playing in the midfield.”

Paul has had two memorable plays on the offensive end. Against Haddam-Killingworth, she pushed forward to the end line to save a ball from going out of bounds. Once settled, she sent a diagonal cross into the box to Farr, who scored with a header.

“I don’t think H-K was expecting a play that quickly,” Paul said. “I think they thought I might have been off(side). It was perfect. I was so excited with the angle I had from it. Thank God Katie got a head on it. It was perfect.”

And against Portland, while playing in the middle of the attack and crashing the goal, she rebounded her own shot off the left post and converted.

“That goal was pure heart and grit. She wanted that goal more than anything,” said Kavanaugh.

No matter where Coginchaug’s season goes from here, Kavanaugh said she knows Paul will be doing whatever is asked of her to help the Blue Devils win.

“Sometimes that means she has to give up her beloved center-mid and sometimes that means she has to chase down a ball that hits the post,” she said, “but she’s going to try to put this team on her shoulders.”

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