All-Area Girls Soccer Team: No pony show

All-Area Girls Soccer Team: No pony show

MAHOMET — A few years ago, Gary Johnson decided to take a fraction of his family's property, which spans several acres of pasture, and hire a contractor to even out the land and lay grass near the stable for his family's three horses, a number that has dwindled over the years as the Johnson-Monfort family has become busier and busier.

On that land, he painted lines and set up goals. When he was younger, soccer wasn't accessible, so he didn't play until his adult years. For his daughters, he decided, that wouldn't be the case. This would be the place where his daughter, Mahomet-Seymour junior Meredith Johnson-Monfort, would hone her prodigious skills while he would play soccer with friends on the weekend in games they'd dub "old folk soccer."

"We wanted to give Meredith a good place to play and also for us to play on," Johnson said. "There's a longer-term vision for (the land), but it does get some use."

That the horses roam near the soccer field is fitting. One of the reasons the family has livestock, which also used to include chickens, was to build work ethic in their children. That work ethic, combined with raw strength, speed and talent, led Johnson-Monfort to soccer stardom.

Johnson-Monfort scored 34 goals for M-S this season, bringing her career total to 74 with a season remaining. She was named All-State by the Illinois High School Soccer Coaches' Association and All-Midwest Region by the National Soccer Coaches' Association of America, and in turn, she was named The News-Gazette's Player of the Year.


Shining early on

In a way, it was a breakthrough season for Johnson-Monfort, even though she was already considered one of the area's best.

Johnson-Monfort was always one of the strongest and fastest players on the field. M-S coach Joey Gruner first noticed that she had special talent two years ago. For most of her freshman year, Johnson-Monfort stayed "low-key," Gruner said, but during the Class 2A regional championship match against Champaign Central she broke loose. Trailing 1-0, Johnson-Monfort took control of the ball around midfield, broke down a couple of defenders and scored to level the game, which the Bulldogs eventually lost on penalty kicks.

"That was the first time it stood out to me," he said, "(with) the natural talent that she had."

The next year, she came into her own, breaking the Bulldogs' single-season scoring record with 25 goals. Again, her strength, speed and endurance shone through.

But something was missing from her repertoire. And to find it, she needed to push herself further.


Raising the bar

After playing for the local Mahomet club team and Illinois Football Club in Champaign, Johnson-Monfort decided to take her commitment to a new level and join Illinois Fusion in Bloomington-Normal, which is now named Illinois Fire and is generally known as the top girls' soccer club in Illinois outside of the Chicagoland area.

"I had a lot of Division I committed girls on my team, and everyone pushed each other to be our best every day," Johnson-Monfort said. "Plus, driving two hours pretty much daily, I needed to get as much out of the practices as I could, so it really drove me to work my hardest and be the best that I could be."

The style of training also made her think about the game differently.

"I had never been a really tactical player," she said. "I've always just gone for it and out-run and out-muscled girls."

That changed. And it didn't take Gruner long to realize his best player was even better.

"You could see it immediately when she came back this year that she was at a different level than she was before," Gruner said. "As soon as we started playing in some of the more competitive games where we needed the speed up on top, you just started seeing her do some pretty special things."


Coming on strong

The talent Johnson-Monfort possesses played itself out when the Bulldogs faced eventual 1A state runner-up Normal U-High. M-S trailed 3-1, but Johnson-Monfort put the team on her back, finishing the game with three goals and an assist in an eventual 4-3 victory against the Pioneers on May 2. In a 3-2 win over Pekin on May 11, Johnson-Monfort scored three unassisted goals.

"In the biggest games, in the games where we needed the most to be done, she was able to find what it was that the team needed," Gruner said.

In the end, the Bulldogs won a regional championship and set a program record for wins in a season by finishing 19-4-1 with Johnson-Monfort leading the charge before falling to Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin in the 2A sectional semifinals. Next year, she'll lead a team that returns a majority of its starters. Johnson-Monfort will spend her summer touring the region and the country, playing in front of college coaches with Illinois Fire and going to college camps.

And when she's not off in Bloomington or another location around the country, she'll be in her backyard, honing her skills as she continues to turn that raw talent into the makings of a finely-tuned player.

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