North High­lands soc­cer coach Tara Madi­gan

Coach Tara Madi­gan leads North­ern High­lands girls soc­cer team to great­ness


When Tara Madi­gan be­came the head coach of the North­ern High­lands girls soc­cer team in 2003, her goals were sim­ple and straight for­ward: Cre­ate a tight-knit bond among the play­ers in the pro­gram and main­tain the win­ning tra­di­tion the High­landers al­ready had.

A lit­tle more than 12 years later, Madi­gan has done that and so much more, help­ing cre­ate one of the most suc­cess­ful girls’ soc­cer dy­nas­ties in state his­tory and a pro­gram rapidly gain­ing na­tional at­ten­tion.

“Ev­ery­one who coaches wants to do more and give more to the pro­gram than what they started with,” Madi­gan says. “But I never imag­ined it would be any­thing like this.”

State ti­tles, state records, per­fect sea­sons, na­tional rank­ings – most teams can only dream of this kind of suc­cess. But thanks to Madi­gan’s lead­er­ship and a seem­ingly un­end­ing pool of talented play­ers who buy into her vi­sion, North­ern High­lands has made it all a re­al­ity.

Over the last three years, the High­landers have en­joyed un­prece­dented suc­cess for a New Jer­sey girls’ soc­cer team, go­ing 71-0-1 with two per­fect 24-0 sea­sons and three straight league, Ber­gen County tour­na­ment, North 1, Group 3 and Group 3 state cham­pi­onships.

Along the way they’ve set a new state record for con­sec­u­tive wins (65), ex­tended their state-record un­beaten streak to 72 games head­ing into this sea­son, and fin­ished the last two sea­sons ranked No. 2 and No. 5, re­spec- tively, in the Na­tional Soc­cer Coaches As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica na­tional poll.

Not bad for a team that didn’t win its first out­right state cham­pi­onship un­til 2011.

“Th­ese girls have gone way above where I would have ever ex­pected,” Madi­gan says. “To keep this streak go­ing for as long as they have is in­cred­i­ble and it’s a tes­ta­ment to their hard work.”

That work started in 2003 when Madi­gan, a star soc­cer and soft­ball player at River Dell, ac­cepted North­ern High­lands’ head coach­ing po­si­tion.

The pro­gram al­ready had a strong his­tory at that point, having won six Ber­gen County tour­na­ment ti­tles and shared two Group 3 state ti­tles. But they were more of a North Jer­sey power than any­thing else and were still in the shadow of neigh­bor­ing ri­val Ramapo, which had won 11 state cham­pi­onships at the time.

“I in­her­ited a pro­gram with a lot of tra­di­tion,” Madi­gan says. “They had won league ti­tles and they had won county ti­tles and it was im­por­tant to main­tain that ex­cel­lence.”

To take the next step and be­come a state power, how­ever, Madi­gan knew some things had to change. Her top pri­or­ity was mak­ing the team feel more like a fam­ily; elim­i­nat­ing the in­di­vid­ual cliques that nat­u­rally form in team set­tings and mak­ing ev­ery­one – from the last bench player to the top scorer – feel like they were of equal im­por­tance to suc­cess.

To do this she started having the team at­tend overnight soc­cer camps dur­ing the sum­mer and also had the play­ers host pasta par­ties and movie nights through­out the sea­son. Madi­gan also had the play­ers cre­ate team goal lists be­fore each sea­son and made sure they held each other ac­count­able for the goals on that list.

That fos­tered a sense of unity and ca­ma­raderie that paid off with con­sec­u­tive county ti­tles in 2004-05, an­other co-state cham­pi­onship in 2009, and ul­ti­mately the first un­de­feated, out­right state cham­pi­onship team in 2011.

“When you played for North­ern High­lands, you weren’t play­ing with team­mates, you were play­ing with sisters,” says Arista Men­eve, a de­fender on the 2011 team.

“We spent 6 to 7 days a week to­gether,” adds Christina Son­ageri, an­other de­fender from the 2011 team. “We ba­si­cally lived with each for fives months and it made us all so much closer.”

At the same time, the High­landers are also ex­tremely com­pet­i­tive with each other in prac­tice, a trait they picked up from their fiery coach. There are no guar­an­teed start­ing spots on North­ern High­lands, not even if you were the lead­ing scorer the pre­vi­ous year. Ev­ery spot, ev­ery minute of play­ing time has to be earned, and that com­pet­i­tive­ness shows it­self most clearly in close games, not that there are many of them.

In 2011, the High­landers trailed Ramapo by two goals with just over seven min­utes left in the sec­tional fi­nal but scored three times in reg­u­la­tion to win. Ear­lier that year, they trailed Mah­wah 1-0 with only 30 seconds re­main­ing in the Ber­gen County quar­ter­fi­nals but won in over­time, 2-1. In 2012, they beat Ridge­wood, 2-1, in OT af­ter trail­ing by one in the fi­nals seconds of reg­u­la­tion, and in 2013, they beat West Mor­ris, 2-1, with a late goal in the Group 3 semi­fi­nal af­ter ty­ing IHA, 1-1, in the Ber­gen County tour­na­ment fi­nal.

“We’ve had ups and downs like any team,” says se­nior for­ward Hana Kerner, who has been on all three un­beaten teams. “We’ve been down dur­ing games and had to come back. But when it does come down to sit­u­a­tions like that and you look side to side and you look at your team­mates and you know they will do any­thing to win the game just like you will, it makes all the dif­fer­ence.”

It re­mains to be seen if this year’s group can make it through an­other sea­son un­scathed. But no mat­ter what hap­pens, they’ll all bat­tle to­gether right un­til the end.

“It’s been fun,” Madi­gan says. “There’s been some roller­coaster rides. There’s been some heart at­tacks wait­ing to hap­pen. But there’s also been such mem­o­rable, his­tor­i­cal mo­ments that none of us will ever for­get.”

WIN­NING STREAK A tes­ta­ment to Madi­gan’s lead­er­ship is the re­mark­able suc­cess of the girls soc­cer team and its 72 games with­out a loss.

GOOD SPORT When the game is over, Madi­gan is always part of the cel­e­bra­tion.

SE­RI­OUS ABOUT SOC­CER Madi­gan re­mains fo­cused while she guides her team on the field.

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