The Penobscot Valley High School girls soccer team celebrates its Class D North regional championship victory over Wisdom in Hermon, Maine, on Nov. 7, 2023. Credit: Kim Higgins / BDN

Brooke Champion had never played soccer in her life until two years ago. When she tried out for the Penobscot Valley High School girls soccer team in Howland, she asked head coach Jeremy Durost how to kick the ball.

“I kept kicking it with my toe and I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t going to where I was kicking it,” said Champion, who was a junior at the time.

She proved to be a fast learner and it culminated in her scoring the only goal in Penobscot Valley’s 1-0 win over Saint Dominic Academy of Auburn in the State Class D championship game on Saturday at Messalonskee High School in Oakland.

“I did not expect to get a goal at states,” said Champion. “All the goals I scored this year came away from home and my family hadn’t been able to see them. My family has really supported me but it was so hard for them to make the away games because of their schedules.

“And for them to be able to see me score a goal for the first time and it was in the state game meant so much to me,” she said.

“I was so excited for her,” said senior midfielder Mia Neal. “I knew her family hadn’t been able to see her score a goal and she had a hat trick in one (road) game this year.”

And when they finally did see her score, it was a state championship game-winner.

“It was amazing to see,” said Neal.

Champion had four assists to go with six goals this season.

Ellie Austin set up the goal as she maneuvered around the goalkeeper and fed a perfect pass to Champion, who slotted it home from the middle of the penalty area.

“I just kicked it toward the net expecting Rylee (Moulton) to swoop in and get her foot on it. But she didn’t go toward the goal. It just went in,” said Champion who said Austin is a terrific left wing.

Champion said her teammates have been very supportive and helped her immensely as did  Durost and her boyfriend, former All-Penobscot Valley Conference soccer player Gabe Reed. Reed worked with her on her game before the season.

“She has worked very hard which is why she improved so much,” said Durost.

The win was especially sweet for Neal, who missed all of last season after undergoing surgery on her left knee.

“It was so exciting for me to be able to come back,” said Neal. “I knew we had a very strong team and to come back and win a state championship is such a big accomplishment.”

PVHS reached the state title game a year ago but lost to North Yarmouth Academy 8-0.

“It took me a year before I started playing sports again. It was a lot of recovery but it was well worth it,” said Neal.

For Neal, their accomplishment hasn’t sunk in yet.

“When it does sink in it will be sad because it means soccer is over,” said Neal who said that being able to kiss the gold ball her senior season will always be a fond memory.

It was Penobscot Valley’s first state schoolgirl soccer title since the 1986 team captured the B crown. The Howlers had also triumphed in 1983 and ‘85 so it was a run of three state championships in four years.

Neal pointed out that relatives of some of the players on the team played on those state title teams and she noted her father was attending PVHS at the time.

“A lot of our parents grew up here,” said Neal. “It’s crazy that we were finally able to bring another gold ball back here.”

Just three years ago, Gerald Hutchinson, Penobscot Valley’s athletic director at the time, had to petition the Maine Principals Association in order to be able to add eighth graders to the varsity roster.

“We only had 13 players,” said head coach Durost who noted that it was the year they were “coming off COVID.”

So if there were any COVID outbreaks or injuries, they would have been in trouble with just two substitutes.

The MPA allowed them to add eighth graders and five of them were added.

They had 25 players on this year’s team.

The three that are still here are sophomores and have been very impactful.

Midfielder Lila Cummings was named the Penobscot Valley Conference’s Class C-D Player of the Year after being the D North Player of the Year a year ago.

She scored 24 goals this season and had a team-high 21 assists.

Striker Rylee Moulton was the team’s leading scorer with 32 goals and nine assists and she joined Cummings on the All-PVC C-D first team.

Moulton and junior left wing Austin rallied the Howlers past Wisdom High of St. Agatha, each notching a goal and an assist in the final six minutes to enable the Howlers to pull out a 2-1 win.

And sophomore right wing Savannah Durost (1 goal,  2assists) has been a steady all-around player.

Cummings and Neal (1 goal, 4 assists) anchored the dominant midfield along with senior Ashlyn St. Cyr (9 & 2) and sophomore Lauren Veino (1 & 7). Neal was an All-PVC second team pick.

Veino wound up moving to the back line after sophomore back Eve McNally suffered a concussion in the semifinal win over Central Aroostook of Mars Hill.

The back line was headlined by junior Allie LeBlanc (1 & 1), who was an All-PVC third team pick, along with senior Emma Potter (3 & 7).

The Howlers, who outscored their opponents 100-7, entered last summer without a goalie after last year’s goalie transferred.

Brooklynn Raymond, a freshman, had been a prolific scorer in middle school but was converted to goalie and Neal said she did a “phenomenal job.”

“She wanted to be able to score goals but she did what was best for the team. A lot of people wouldn’t have done that,” said Neal.

“She could play anywhere on the field. She is so athletic,” said Durost. “She was the missing piece we needed back there. She knew we needed her there and she recognized that would put us in a good situation to make a long tournament run.”

The Howlers also received important contributions from senior back Harlee Glidden, senior midfielder Aubrey Dionne, junior defender Shay Ireland and sophomore midfielder Addy Lyons.

Champion said Glidden “begged and begged me to play soccer and I’m glad she did. It has been an amazing two years.”

Durost said one thing that really helped his team is several of his players had big-game experience, appearing in playoff games in basketball and softball in addition to soccer.

With players from an undefeated middle school team coming in next year, the Howlers will be favored to make it three regional titles in a row.