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By Rod Thornburg / Special to The Californian
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BY STEPHEN LYNCH Special to The Californian
Despite being a freshman, McKenna Darling began the season with her mind set on accomplishing big things.
Darling wasn't satisfied with just making the Frontier varsity soccer team. She wanted to be an impact player for the Titans.
After getting over some early-season nerves with the help of her teammates, Darling, The Californian's Girls Soccer Player of the Year, accomplished all that she set out to do, registering 15 goals and seven assists while leading the Titans to a Southwest Yosemite League title.
"As a freshman going in there that first practice, there was a lot of pressure, because you just never want to be the freshman that sits the bench or doesn't really stand out because you want to make a difference," Darling said. "That's the reason why you're on varsity. I just knew that I had to do something. And I had to work hard. And I had to stand out. And so that's what I tried to do."
Darling wasted little time showcasing her talents as a prolific goal scorer. She found the back of the net against Garces in the Titans' second game of the year. From then on, she continued to ravage opposing defenses with an array of short strikes and rebound goals.
"She's a pure finisher," Frontier coach Max Bluemel said. "Certain players in scoring situations, the nerves might get the better of them. They might take an extra touch on the ball. But she has composure that I have not seen in a player her age, where she can finish the ball."
Darling was especially good during the Titans' run to the SWYL title, with nine goals in 10 games.
The highlight of her season was scoring a game-winning goal against Liberty, a team that the Titans had never beaten.
"It just felt so good to be able to make history for the team and to see Bluemel's happy face and everyone else's happy face," Darling said. "We all had worked so hard on that game and to be able to come out with and to win the very first time against Liberty. It was so cool to be able to experience that."
Throughout the season, Darling improved on a game-by-game basis, Bluemel said. And she always seemed to play her best when the Titans needed her the most.
Frontier was 12-0 in games in which Darling scored a goal.
"She came up big all season," Bluemel said. "And the bigger the game, the more she rose to the occasion."
Darling credits her success as a goal-scorer to excellent passing by teammates and her own desire to put the ball in the back of the net.
"You just have to be hungry to score goals," she said. "That's really all it comes down to. It comes down to wanting to score. And if you want to score and you have the drive to score, then you will."
Darling, who began playing soccer competitively at age 5, is a longtime club player.
She believes that experience, along with the support of her parents, prepared her well for the rigors of the high school game.
"My dad used to sit on his computer looking up drills, looking up skills, looking up everything that I could do to make me better," Darling said. "And then we would go out and work on them."
While all of that hard work paid off this season, Darling knows she'll have to keep it up this coming year in order to continue improving and stay one step ahead of opponents that will be focused on shutting her down.
"Yeah, it's going to be a lot of pressure, but I'm I just going to get motivation and work harder," Darling said. "I'm only going to get better if I work harder and I put my mind to it. As I improve, I just need to accept the challenge and try to be better every single year."