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Concord-Carlisle striker thrives under pressure

Closes season as top scorer in Eastern Mass.

Concord-Carlisle’s Andrea O’Brien (left) controls the ball as Peabody’s Hayley Dowd bears down. Concord-Carlisle’s Andrea O’Brien (left) controls the ball as Peabody’s Hayley Dowd bears down. (Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe)
By Jason Mastrodonato
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2011

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PEABODY - Andrea O’Brien stood in line with her Concord-Carlisle High School teammates before Wednesday’s Division 1 North quarterfinal against Peabody, her purple cleats bouncing off the grass as the anxious striker waited to fire a warm-up shot.

One by one, the players dished a 10-yard pass to assistant coach Amy Brooks before running a few steps forward, receiving a pass right back and taking a 20-yard shot on goal.

It’s a common pregame drill used by many high school teams. So routine, actually, that Concord-Carlisle coach Nancy Slocum was hardly paying attention at times, focusing her energy on preparing for the match against the No. 1 seeded Tanners.

A few shots found the net and a bunch were saved by sophomore goalie Abbey Ojemann, but a good portion of them ended up high or wide, standard practice for pregame shooting.

Then O’Brien stepped up. She passed the ball just like the others, but when she ran a few steps to line up her shot, suddenly she stood out from the crowd. Her arms were flailing in the air, her legs began turning over like train wheels and her head was locked on the ball.

Then the shot: a low drive wide to the left.

A high drive just over the right corner.

A low drive right of the net.

Every shot was driven like it was a routine. The balls weren’t always finding the net, but to anyone who was watching, they were solid strikes for a junior in high school.

But O’Brien was not pleased. She threw her arms in the air in frustration and ran back in line (once even sneaking in toward the front).

“I don’t think she’s ever satisfied,’’ said Slocum. “She knows she’s good, but she’s also always trying to push the envelope and be at the highest level that she can. She’s not satisfied with sloppiness.’’

There wasn’t a whole lot of sloppy play coming off the feet of O’Brien this fall - no girl in Eastern Massachusetts scored more than her 34 goals. And even though the Patriots’ season ended with a 3-0 loss to Peabody, their star forward created quite the sequel following a Dual County League MVP award as a sophomore last fall.

“It’s definitely a lot of pressure,’’ O’Brien said. “I feel like you have to live up to those standards again, because doing that as a sophomore, you feel like you need to repeat it as a junior and senior and get better each year.’’

But this fall was different.

No longer was O’Brien a secret in the Dual County League. She’s always a threat to score and a popular target on her team, though that also makes her a bull’s eye for opposing defenses.

“You can’t mark someone like that one on one,’’ said Peabody coach Dennis Desroches. “So you have to identify where she is and get a support defender right behind, just in case she is beat. But it’s a team approach to stopping an attack like that. You can’t do it with one person.’’

Lee Billiard, the coach at DCL rival Acton-Boxborough Regional, gave O’Brien top marks.

“Just a great soccer brain,’’ Billiard said. “She can drive at people and go straight to goal and it makes her very dangerous. She’s just one of those strikers that thrives off putting the ball in the back of the net.’’

Acton-Boxborough was one of the teams that fared better against the Patriots when O’Brien was kept off the score sheet. The problem, of course, is that it’s much easier said than done.

But after a 2-1 loss to Concord-Carlisle early in the season, Billiard’s crew keyed in on O’Brien and held her scoreless in a 4-0 win the next time the two squads met. And as much as Slocum and the Patriots tried proving otherwise early in the season, they couldn’t win without O’Brien scoring. It wasn’t until the last game of the regular season, a 2-0 win over Weston, that they accomplished the feat.

“I told them, ‘We have to be prepared for that to happen,’ ’’ Slocum said. “We can’t rely on Andrea to score all the time.’’

In a first-round win over Central Catholic in tournament play, O’Brien netted three goals and assisted on another.

But when she was hampered by a hamstring injury and held without a shot on goal during Wednesday’s season-ending loss to Peabody, the Patriots had a hard time generating offense.

O’Brien insists the teams that believe stopping her is the only key to beating Concord-Carlisle aren’t being fair in their judgment.

“I don’t think it’s just, ‘Stop O’Brien,’ ’’ she said. “The whole team collectively, we have goal-scorers. It’s just finding them and seeing them and giving them a chance, and then they can finish.’’

Having an older brother, Mikey - who was a major part of the Patriot boys winning the Division 2 state title last year before scoring 18 goals this fall - has only added to the pressure. She calls it friendly competition, but the two certainly keep an eye on each other’s statistics and have no problem talking about them.

The extra weight on her shoulders only fuels O’Brien’s motivation, said Slocum.

“I think she’s been this way since she was a kid, and I think it’s part of who she is,’’ the coach added. “And I give her parents a ton of credit for nurturing her and guiding her and allowing her to be her and not trying to redirect it. Because some people may feel like it’s too intense, because she is really intense.’’

“Mentally, I’m so competitive in everything I do,’’ O’Brien said. “It’s just a habit. Every ball I have to go full on for, need to win every 50/50 ball. It’s just my competitive nature and mental toughness.’’

The 5-foot-5 O’Brien intends on building strength this offseason as she gets closer to deciding on a college and begins to prepare for her senior year. She’ll continue to get touches, work on her distance shooting, and handle the pressure that comes with being the best goal-scorer in the area.

“I have pretty high goals for myself,’’ she said. “I try to live up to them as best as I can but it’s definitely a lot of pressure. And I want it on me. It makes me play better.’’

The scary part is that Slocum believes O’Brien will only continue to improve, and she’s never seen someone who can match O’Brien’s work rate.

As for identifying areas where the crafty forward can get a little better, Slocum said, “I don’t want to give away any secrets. I think she’s pretty hard to stop and we’ll leave it at that.’’