Central Maine Community College women’s soccer team members, from left, Samantha Belardo, Skyler Henry and Rachel Dunn are three veterans who decided to return for one more season. CMCC photo

Any opening-day jitters have been brushed aside by the infectious enthusiasm of three veterans — Rachel Dunn, Skyler Henry and Samantha Belardo — who decided to return to play for the women’s soccer team at Central Maine Community College.

The fearsome out-of-staters all agreed that attending CMCC was worth another season after the 2020 schedule was shelved by COVID-19.

But the Mustangs are focused on their Sept. 7 home opener against NHTI — Concord’s Community College.

“The last time we played them was in a Yankee Conference semifinal game, where we beat them 1-0 at a time when they had not lost to a conference opponent in five years,” sixth-year CMCC women’s head soccer coach Rob Rodriguez said.

Henry, a Waterford, Conn. native who will be transferring out of CM after the season to pursue her Master’s degree, said she returned after finding that the college started a new program in exercise science.

“It is super cheap to take classes here,” she said, “and also with COVID ending my season (last year), I just felt like I had unfinished business. It also came down to my two best friends (who) were also coming back. It felt like it was just the right way to end my soccer career.”

The vaccinated Henry said she is not concerned about the coronavirus, but she is eager to beat NHTI again.

“The big deal (about home opener) is we kind of ended their season in the semifinals,” she said. “They were undefeated for how many years. That’s all I have heard about. We beat them 1-0 in a pretty big game. That has never happened before. We are looking forward to that next game.

“We have a pretty new team this year. The four returners we have know what to expect. Most of our team being new don’t know what to expect. I am looking forward to seeing how they handle the pressure of the game. I just hope to see a lot of people come out for the game. It is going to be a big one.”

Dunn, a defensive midfielder and an education major from Marshfield, Mass., also felt the need to return for one more semester to participate in soccer at CM.

“I graduated from CM already,” she said. “It is my third year, but it is like my second half of my third year. I needed like one more semester to finish my classes to graduate. I am taking education classes here because it is way cheaper here than any other school.”

Her studies are important to Dunn, but the opener with NHTI is also just as exciting and an opportunity to prove to NHTI that the Mustangs’ 1-0 win wasn’t just a fluke.

“I look forward to the crowd,” she said, “and hopefully beat NHTI more than 1-0.”

Belardo is a Mustang striker from Russell, Mass. She returned to earn a certificate, studied criminal justice and is intent on joining a police force.

“NHTI was our last win,” she said. “It was the first time we ever beat them.”

As far as the Mustangs beating the Lynx again, Belardo likes her team’s chance.

“I am really looking forward to it,” she said. “We have a really great team this year. Most of them are freshmen (and) they are really great players, and I think we work really well together.”

A PROUD AND GRATEFUL COACH

Rodriguez points out that the three athletes are from all over New England, which is a good thing.

“We got Connecticut and two players from different parts of Massachusetts,” he said. “They bonded really quickly. They all really want the program to be a success. They value what they are doing and they wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves that they had a hand in creating.

“They are extremely committed to making the program better. They came back when they didn’t really have to. They just wanted to and they wanted to be a part of what we are continuing to build here. Having all three back is a tremendous difference to the team. They are good mentors to the younger players.”

Rodriguez said it is a delight being around a team that bonds well with each other and continues to learn from the veterans. He also knows their devotion to each other will play a role in the home opener.

“They (NHTI) have been the gold standard in the (Yankee Conference) for such a long time,” he said. “So when we have success against them in a final-four tournament, it really made our home opener for this year that much more important.

“We knew we were building to that point, anyway. But they have been the team at the top of the conference for quite a few years. They are well-coached, they are a skilled team. When you are on top, you’ve got a target on your back by everybody so … we are not the only team out to beat them.”


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