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Next drill: to reach high, head up

Szafran a gem, if unpolished, for the Tigers

Newton North High senior Holly Szafran uses a recent practice to fine-tune her left-footed shot, which has grown stronger since she suffered an injury to her right ankle a year ago. Newton North High senior Holly Szafran uses a recent practice to fine-tune her left-footed shot, which has grown stronger since she suffered an injury to her right ankle a year ago. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)
By Jason Mastrodonato
September 25, 2011

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The scoreboard reflected a tie game Tuesday, but the one-way play on the turf at Milton High showcased why the Newton North High School girls’ soccer team sits atop the Bay State Conference’s Carey Division.

Newton North senior Holly Szafran had shifted from center field to left wing, and as she collected a pass, freshman Anna Nesgos broke free from the defense and ran free waiting for the ball. Szafran, however, launched a 25-yard shot that sailed high and wide of the net.

“Better decisions, Holly,’’ yelled assistant coach Amanda Tsetsi. “Keep your head up.’’

Thirty seconds later, chasing a bouncing pass down the left side of the field, Szafran fired a crossing pass into the middle so accurately that teammate Shannon Fitzgerald only had to let the ball bounce off her body as she stumbled into the net for the go-ahead goal, in what would be a 4-1 win for the Tigers.

“Perfectly placed pass,’’ the sophomore said afterward.

A year ago, Szafran likely wouldn’t have made that pass. She made it with her left foot, and until she injured her right ankle prior to last season, she wasn’t particularly good with her off side. But she is now.

“I think I scored half my goals with my left foot this season already,’’ said Szafran, who has collected six goals in six games for the unbeaten Tigers (5-0-1). “So they’re getting pretty even.’’

In July 2010, Szafran sprained her right ankle. But with only a few games left in the club season, she wanted to keep playing, relying on pain relievers, ice, and tape. Three games later, her foot was so swollen that ligaments and tendons began to tear, and she suffered a stress fracture. Szafran was forced to sit on the bench as Newton North opened its season last fall.

“That’s the worst,’’ said Szafran, who has type 1 diabetes and must keep a close eye on her blood glucose while she plays. “Soccer is more like a stress reliever as well. With all the stress of college and family issues, you have one good strength, and you want to use it to your advantage.’’

Her physical therapist kept telling her she wasn’t ready to play, but Szafran hopped back on the field a few weeks later.

Her right foot was in such bad shape she could hardly shoot, which had been her strength as a player for years. So she started developing her ball skills with her left foot, an effort now showing results.

This season, the Tigers, called the “class of the league’’ by Milton coach Brian Borde, are fielding five freshmen, and they are counting on their dual threat to score goals.

“She really stepped up for the team this year,’’ said sophomore midfielder Christina Callahan. “Last year she was more of a distributor, this year she’s going for the goal. She has such a different mentality in the game. She takes more outside shots. She’ll just rip one from outside the box.’’

Szafran has been a big influence, according to Fitzgerald. “If our team is down, she’ll be the one to get us up,’’ she said. “She scores a lot of goals, she’s good at setting up plays up top, and when she plays outside, she’s really good at sending crosses.’’

Still, Szafran’s biggest issue as she continues her development from role player to relied-upon senior is her decision-making. Tsetsi’s remarks after the forward missed the wide-open Nesgos earlier in the game were repeated several times.

While Szafran touched the ball perhaps more than anyone else, connecting on several passes that seemed nearly impossible to get through, she also gave the ball away cheaply at times and missed several shots from 20 or 25 yards out.

“Holly wants to score goals,’’ said head coach James Hamblin. “And I think sometimes she does try and take those shots from 25 yards, or does try and score goals on her own at times, because she has that positive mentality of ‘I can do this.’ And technically she can.

“She’s good enough to score goals from that distance and she’s good enough to take on a player and put it in the back of the net. But again she can also be effective assisting goals. And the cross she put in for Shannon’s goal was excellent. So it was good to see, yes, she has that mentality, but I think she’s starting to get a better understanding of her decision-making in that final third.’’

Szafran’s ability to shoot didn’t come easy.

She started working on her game as a youngster growing up in Michigan, and moved to West Newton in the sixth grade. Now she routinely walks down to Franklin Elementary to kick the ball around on weeknights when her homework is done. If anything else, at least it relieves a little stress.

And if she does make a mistake on the field, she’s ready to hear about it.

“They’re always yelling at me, ‘Holly, get your head up,’ ’’ she said. “It happens every game. I don’t know why, but they like to yell at me. Some people have to get yelled at and by seeing other people get yelled at, it can make you a stronger player, just so you know that’s what you should do. So I mean, me getting yelled at helps the team as well.’’

Her maturity has been a big part of Newton North’s success in Hamblin’s third year at the helm. His possession-first style of soccer was evident all over the pitch on Tuesday, as his team kept the ball on the ground and worked triangles around their opponents from the defense all the way to the Milton net.

The Tigers struggled in his first season as coach, and Hamblin is hoping his time spent developing young players pays off. And while it’s still early, the Tigers believe the potential is there to make a serious run in the state tournament, particularly if Szafran continues to take a leading role.

“She’s definitely not a finished article,’’ Hamblin said. “She’s got loads of potential and could definitely go on to play college soccer. She just sometimes needs to get her head up and make better decisions. By doing that she’ll elevate herself into that next tier.’’

Cronin lifts Weston The hard work that Weston High freshman Lane Cronin has put in this season is paying dividends. She scored twice Tuesday, propelling the Wildcats to a 3-0 victory over Dual County League rival Westford Academy.

“She’s refreshing to work with,’’ said coach James Blackwell. “She stays behind after practice with me to work, just a great kid.’’

Cronin has scored four times in the last three games, and has six on the season for the Wildcats (3-2), who will play Concord-Carlisle High (4-1) tomorrow in a battle of the top two teams in the DCL’s Small Division.

Young but scrappy The Acton-Boxborough Regional girls are young, small, and fast, but their 4-3-1 start to the season leading into Thursday’s showdown with Lincoln-Sudbury Regional is not surprising to coach Lee Billiard.

“We’re beating the teams we’re supposed to beat, and we’re competitive in every other game,’’ he said.

The Colonials have three freshmen starting - midfielder Alex Spangler, defender Pietra Sweeny, and forward Kayleigh Sye - and an attack led by senior forward Danielle Cremmen.

Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at jasonmastrodonato@