By Andrew Garda
While Montclair High School girls soccer captain Claire Manning’s 20 goals and seven assists were absolutely a factor in her being named NJ.com’s Girls Soccer Player of the Year for the 2020 fall season, the Georgetown-committed senior isn’t one to crow about it.
In fact, the very first thing she’ll talk about when you bring it up is how she wouldn’t have won the award or scored as frequently as she did if not for the efforts of her teammates.
“A lot of it has to do with the way Baldwin [Gittens] led the back line, because if she didn’t play the way she played, if she didn’t inspire players like Shelby [Duffy], Emma Belsky [and] Kira [Hessler], our back line wouldn’t have been so solid,” Manning said. “I relied so heavily on them to help build an attack forward.”
When he heard that she had immediately credited her teammates, Mounties head coach Ashley Hammond wasn’t surprised. That’s just how Manning rolls, according to the coach.
“Exactly what I would expect from a classy young lady like that,” Hammond said.
Hammond calls Manning The Silent Assassin, mostly for her tendency to slip behind the defense when they aren’t looking and score.
It’s also for her tendency to quietly do her work and deflect compliments, though.
Manning is the type of player who is cognizant that soccer is a team sport, and knows that while individual accolades are nice, they don’t mean anything if you don’t win.
That takes a team.
“I really couldn’t have done it without the team,” she said.
This season the team went undefeated and won the NJSIAA North East E tournament with a 4-1 win over Livingston at Fortunato Field.
The season was even more special for Manning and the Mounties given the pandemic, which resulted in several canceled games because their opponents had issues. For Montclair, staying focused so they could stay on the field was critical. That meant that the senior leadership – especially captains Manning, Sydney Masur and Gittens – had to make sure the team stayed on task.
As is typical for Manning, she gave the credit to someone else, in this case her coach.
“A lot of it has to do with the mentality that Ash instilled in us because he kind of reinforced the idea to not soak in your losses and to not specialize the wins,” Manning said.
“He just made sure that when we won, we had to act as if we knew we were always going to win, and that we’re gonna continue to fight and work hard because no games are easy. It’s 80 minutes and soccer is a crazy sport, so anything could happen. So if we were to start acting cocky, we knew it would be to our downfall.”
Manning felt that her job – as well as the job of all the seniors – on and off the field was to make sure the younger players were doing what they were supposed to do.
In many ways she said it was easy because the senior teammates had been together for four years, so they knew they could rely on each other. It also makes the success of the last two years, which included compiling a 31-1-3 record, a 2019 Essex County Tournament championship, 112 goals scored versus just 20 against, and now the North East E championship, even more sweet.
“It’s so special because I think eight of us from my class made varsity as freshmen,” Manning said. “So ever since we made that team, we had a goal in mind, and we knew if we worked together that we would complete it. To find that success just shows how much hard work we put in and how we relied on each other to get the job done.”
Manning said that in her first two years with the team there were chemistry issues. When she and her classmates started to take leadership roles, they set out to change that.
“Starting my junior year, we tried to focus a lot on that, and it just helped us so much,” she said. “Whether that be in practice or games, we knew we could hold each other accountable more and push ourselves to be our best.”
While the senior class has been together a long time, nobody on the team has played together longer than Manning and Masur, who have been playing together since elementary school.
That has paid off over the last two years, as Masur and Manning became a pair to be feared.
“I always knew she was there,” Manning said of Masur, who will be playing soccer at Indiana University next year as a freshman. “I always knew I could find her feet, find her somehow. And I think our connection helped us break down defenses so easily, and it just stood as a testament to the way we played.”
Hammond said that having Masur, as well as sophomore Sonia Neighbors, made it impossible for a team to focus just on Manning.
Despite the extra attention she often got, Hammond said, Manning still broke free at exactly the right time.
“If you look at the number of times she’s shown up for us, whether it be in the last minute of overtime, whether it be a big goal, time and time again Claire would show up and take care of business. They can only keep her quiet for so long,” he said.
One of those big moments was Manning’s game-winning goal in overtime against Ridgewood to give her team the win in the NJSIAA North East E semifinals on Nov. 20.
“There were only two minutes on the clock, and we had the energy that we did in the first minute of the game,” Manning recalled. “We continued to push ourselves, and I think that stood as a testament to how we were the season and how much character we had.”
This season has brought a lot of fond memories for Manning, from the big wins to the team Zoom calls where they broke down tape of an upcoming opponent.
“When NJ.com called me a couple of weeks ago and said that they were going to make her the player [of the year],” Hammond said, “I was thrilled. [It comes from] a lot of hard work by her and with her.”