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.