PAWTUCKET – With R.I. girls soccer championship aspirations ringing in her ears, Shea High senior Mariama Jaiteh came forward with a solution.
The playoffs were right around the corner and the Raiders were in desperate need of a goalie. Injuries and quarantine restrictions took their toll, removing the starter and her backup. Who was the No. 3 netminder on the depth chart?
That would be Jaiteh, a reserved youngster who moved from Gambia – located in Africa – to Pawtucket just prior to starting her high school experience in 2017. No way was Shea’s bid to finish the season with the Division IV title going to die on Jaiteh’s watch.
“She volunteered for it. No one else wanted to do it. Nobody wants to be a goalkeeper,” said Shea head coach Yianiss Noel, who appointed Jaiteh a captain.
It’s one thing to move from midfield to defense, a switch that Jaiteh can lay claim to during her Raider career. To undertake a crash course in goalkeeping, Jaiteh was willing to do whatever it takes in order to quickly move past the neophyte stage.
“We’re talking about the hardest position on the field,” said Noel, “but she knew what was at stake.”
“It was so important to me that we win. I didn’t want us to come up short because of goalie issues,” said Jaiteh.
There was 1-on-1 tutelage with Noel and Shea assistant coach Andrew Maigret. Tips and pointers were provided by the goalies on the Raider boys soccer team. No question, Jaiteh invested major time with her sights firmly set on holding down the goalie fort.
Still, the move that told Noel that Jaiteh was quite serious in looking to make this experiment work came after the coach gave her a goalie shirt and a pair of gloves. She went to Dick’s Sporting Goods and purchased an additional pair of gloves.
“She said, ‘We are going to make it to the championship,’” said Noel. “Normally when someone volunteers, they say they’ll just do their best. She understood that there was plenty at stake.”
Added Jaiteh, “It was definitely a challenge, but my coaches kept pushing me hard.”
Jaiteh made her goalie debut in Shea’s 2-1 semifinal win over Central Falls. For the most part, she managed to clear the ball out of dangerous situations. More importantly, she was battletested with the season’s biggest game awaiting her and the Raiders.
Jaiteh spent the vast majority of last Saturday’s D-IV final watching from a distance. Standing in net, she kept something resembling a vigil … looking some 60 yards down the field as her teammates practically set up residence within Hope High’s portion of the field.
Basically, Jaiteh was forced to keep to herself. Still, there was the matter of preserving the Raiders’ shutout bid even though the outcome had long been decided.
There was less than 14 minutes remaining at Johnston’s Polisena Stadium before party time could officially ensue for Shea. Up 4-0, the Raiders committed a rare defensive lapse that occurred right in front of their bench. Hope’s Lisely De La Roca sent a pass that allowed teammate Cynthia Almendarez to make a hard charge towards Jaiteh.
Locked in a 1-on-1 duel, Almendarez unleashed a powerful shot from roughly 10 yards away from the net. Proving that her nerves and reflexes had not grown cold, Jaiteh calmly turned away the breakaway attempt. The bid by Almendarez might have been fired right at her, yet Jaiteh was strong with both hands. In the same fell swoop, she cleared the ball out of harm’s way.
“I was confident. I wasn’t scared,” said Jaiteh.
“We dominated the game, but at the most important time for Mariama, she makes a great save,” said Noel. “That save validated all the hard work she put in. Let me show you how good I’ve gotten. Kudos to her. Everyone exploded after she made that save.”
Jaiteh passed her first and what proved to be her only true test. The Blue Wave were awarded a penalty shot with 2:49 left. Jaiteh didn’t even have to flinch as the ball sailed over the crossbar.
When the final whistle sounded in Shea’s 5-0 title-clinching win, Jaiteh’s teammates couldn’t wait to mob her.
In a season that provided numerous challenges, Jaiteh answered the biggest call of them all.
“I’m going to say [winning the championship] is the happiest day in my life because I worked so hard for this,” said Jaiteh.
“Senior leadership. That’s it,” said Noel.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03