At the conclusion of every high school girls soccer season, the Deseret News selects a player from each of the five classifications, 6A to 2A, as an MVP. Each of these athletes understandably possesses a multitude of traits that are necessary for success on the pitch, a list that could go on in perpetuity.
The 2018 MVPs are no different and possess the individual skill sets and leadership qualities to rank among the finest soccer players in the state.
Unique to this season’s crop of MVPs, however, is their versatility. Each of the five girls was tasked with a role they were unfamiliar with and each thrived in the face of uncertainty.
6A — Nicole Ray, Lone Peak
Take in any Lone Peak soccer game, and it is nearly impossible to miss Nicole Ray. The junior midfielder leaps out from the masses, like a good book does its pages.
“The skill set she has is obvious,” Lone Peak head coach Shantel Jolley said. “She is very skillful and talented. She was the centerpiece of our team because of her talent.”
From her center midfield position, Ray led the way for the Knights this season, during their first ever state championship-winning campaign.
She finished the year with 10 goals scored and seven assists, but those numbers belie just how good she was.
“When she had an off game, we definitely struggled,” Jolley said. “She wasn’t voted a captain because our captains were all seniors, but she was a captain just because of how the girls respected her.”
Much of that respect came about because of Ray’s work ethic.
Starting during summer workouts and continuing throughout the season, she demonstrated a work ethic that could only be admired.
“She has become as good as she is because she has put the work in and hasn’t just relied on her talent,” said Jolley. “She is constantly doing personal trainings. She just has this desire to get better. That is why she is as good as she is.”
Ray also proved herself willing to do whatever was asked of her for the betterment of her team. The most famous instance of that came in the 6A semifinals against the Syracuse Titans. It was in that game that Jolley asked Ray to change positions, from midfield to forward.
“I hadn’t played her forward all year, but I knew that she had the ability to keep that center back (Kelsey Steed) honest,” said Jolley. “That is something I hadn’t even talked to her about (beforehand). She thought she did something wrong, but it was the other way around. I needed something to happen and she was the one girl I could go to.
“She made the difference, not just scoring, but playing that position and the impact she had up there. It shows you how good she is, being able to change on the fly. She is that type of player, the type that can make a difference in a game by herself alone.”
5A — Kayla Milford, Corner Canyon
As the top goal scorer on the title-winning Corner Canyon Chargers this season, Kayla Milford is clearly a great soccer player with elite finishing ability.
Her 21 goals were the third most by any player in the 5A classification and she recorded a hat trick in three separate games, wins over Cottonwood (two) and Provo.
Milford also netted a pair of goals during the Chargers’ historic playoff run, one in a first-round victory over East, the other in the semifinals against Skyline.
“She played a vital role for us,” Corner Canyon head coach Krissa Reinbold said. “She has always had a knack, whether it is pretty or not, to get the ball in the net. I think it is her pure heart and effort, her desire to win.”
The thing is, Milford is not and was not a forward, at least not before this season. In club soccer she is a center back and for the first three years of her Corner Canyon career she was a center back.
“She is not a trained scorer. She played defender for us until this season,” said Reinbold.
With the graduation and departure of the Chargers’ leading goal scorer in 2017, Hallee Jones, however, the team needed a goal scorer, and Milford answered the call.
“I always thought in my head that she was a forward,” said Reinbold. “After we lost Hallee, I told (Kayla) she was going to play striker and she loved it. She was like all right, let’s do it.”
As it turns out, that is just who Milford is. She is willing to do whatever is necessary to lead her team to victory.
This year, that meant becoming a scorer, something she quickly adapted to.
“She is really good at making adjustments to what she needs to do," said Reinbold. "She is so incredibly fast and strong, and that made it easier, but because she is so coachable, she was able to make that transition pretty flawlessly.”
Milford also assumed an invaluable leadership role.
“She was definitely our main leader,” Reinbold said. “Kids looked to her, fed off of what she was doing. Her energy, enthusiasm and dedication to the team made everyone more committed."
4A — Heidi Smith, Snow Canyon
When asked to describe Heidi Smith, a junior at Snow Canyon High School, Warriors’ head coach Kenneth Kunde was quick to answer.
“The first thing that stands out about Heidi is she is a gamer,” he said. “She does a great job in practice, she works hard. She works hard in the offseason. She constantly works with trainers, improving her technique and shooting.
“When it gets to game time and the whistle blows, however, she is one of those kids that flips a switch. She thrives under the pressure of playing in games and competing.”
That was clear to anyone who saw Smith play this season. The forward rose to the occasion time and again, helping Snow Canyon to a 16-1-3 overall record and the 4A state championship.
She led the team in goals scored with 22 — the second-highest total in the classification — though that was far from surprising.
“For as long as I can remember, she has always been that attacking striker, scoring goals,” said Kunde. “What sets her apart is her understanding of the game. She understands how to make runs, understands where space is. She can get the ball into those spaces, and because of her work ethic, her technical ability and her strength, combined with her understanding of the field and knowledge of the game, she is really dangerous to guard up front.”
This year, she was asked to expand her game to include facilitating, thanks to the presence of another elite goal scorer in Ashley Brindley (20 goals).
Smith was more than up to the task and finished with a team-high 12 assists.
“Heidi really understood her role and the talent that she had around her,” Kunde said. “She was a lot more of a team player than she has been in the past. She knows she can score goals and that her role is to be that goal scorer, but with Ashley this year, she became a facilitator.
“There were times when Heidi had two or three assists in a game and Ashley had the goals. She played that role really really well.”
For Kunde, Smith’s success in whatever role she was asked to play came down to one simple thing.
“She is a super competitive kid.”
3A — Sydney Cragun, Morgan
Trojans head coach Bryan Searle couldn’t help but chuckle when asked about the role Sydney Cragun played on this year's Morgan team, the now two-time 3A state champions.
As the team’s leading goal scorer (13 goals), the answer appeared obvious, after all.
“She was huge,” Searle said with a laugh.
The chuckle was about much more than that, however.
Searle, as it turns out, knew something about Cragun that relatively few did.
Before this season, she had never been a striker.
“She has always played as an outside (defensive) back,” Searle said. “We looked at her athletic ability and soccer smarts and we needed somebody up there. I thought that she played very very good for having to learn a whole new position that she had never played before.”
While the position change wasn’t flawless — “it was a struggle at times,” Searle said. “It was challenging.” It was what the Trojans needed, and Cragun was willing.
That is just the type of player she is.
“She listens and she does what we tell her to do.” Searle said.
More than that, she is a special soccer player.
“She is gifted, not only athletically, but mentally,” said Searle. “Athletically, she can play 80 minutes at a high pace and it doesn’t even faze her. She is strong and she is fast. She has tenacity, fight and drive. She doesn’t want to lose.”
It was those traits that made her an electric attacker.
She was and is, according to Searle, much more than just a great soccer player, however.
Cragun is a leader, a motivator and a friend.
“She is a great teammate, a great friend,” Searle said. “Everyone looks up to her. She was a captain and was just always positive, always motivating the players even during our tougher preseason.
“It is always positive from her.”
2A — Jordan Crockett, Rowland Hall
In 2017, there was no better player in all of Utah high school girls soccer, statistically at least, than Jordan Crockett — although Syracuse’s Caroline Stringfellow could argue that.
With 43 goals and 18 assists, Crockett was an unstoppable attacking machine for the ’17 Winged Lions.
Those numbers dropped significantly for Crockett this season, but it was through no fault of her own.
She made a position change, not for her own benefit, but for the success of Rowland Hall girls soccer.
“Statiscally she is not going to show up where she did last year because we moved her to center defensive midfield and/or center back,” Rowland Hall head coach Bobby Kennedy said. “Last year, we played her up top and her skill set hasn’t really changed. She is the most athletic kid in the classification easily.”
The move was made for a variety of reasons, but the result was all that mattered.
“Her presence back there was intimating and helped us thwart most attacks,” Kennedy said.Comment on this story
That was made most apparent in the 2A state championship game, played against the rival Waterford Ravens. Crockett set up shop as a center back in that contest, and the result was a 7-0 championship game victory.
“She was an extension of the staff on the field,” said Kennedy. “She is imposing physically, but her understanding of what we wanted to do as a team really set her apart. She could start our attack from the back that would eliminate two-thirds of the opposing team, and her long-range passing abilities are beyond most kids' understanding.”
Simply put, Crockett is a special player.
“She would be on par with some of these kids that are in the higher classifications," said Kennedy.