Lincoln High School senior Grace Linn has always preferred to let her play on the soccer pitch do the talking and for good reason.
In the last three seasons, Grace has ranked either first or second in both goals (59) and assists (35) for the Golden Bears, so making a statement has never been difficult.
Talking to another human being, on the other hand … well, that’s a different story.
“I feel like before this season I was really shy,” Grace said. “I wasn’t a big fan of talking to people, and then when they told me I was going to be the captain, I was like, OK, I got to step it up, I got to talk to these girls and help them do different things. … now I talk a bunch, probably more than coach (William) Bailey wants me to.”
Grace serves as an example of a teenager who has found her voice through participating in high school sports. But, in Linn's case, it took some time for her to grow into the person she is now.
Halfway through her first varsity season, Bailey had managed to get only five words out of the seventh-grade Grace. Eventually, he reached out to her mother, Brandi Linn, to ask if her daughter was unhappy.
“He said, ‘Because she does everything I ask her to do, she always works hard, she does everything I ask her to, but she never says a word,’” Brandi said, recalling Bailey’s questions. “‘She doesn’t smile, she doesn’t frown, nothing. I don’t know if she likes it or not.’”
Even back then, Bailey said Grace was the fourth or fifth most talented girl on the team.
“I just remember thinking man, I can’t lose her,” Bailey said. “She’s going to be a big part of our future, and I just wanted to make sure she was having a good time. She’s come a long way since then. I don’t have to ask her how she feels.”
Grace’s time on the field for Lincoln came to an end Tuesday night when she scored the Golden Bears’ lone goal in a 3-1 loss to Westbrook Christian in the second round of the Class 4A-5A playoffs, but the transformation she went through this season as a captain should prove the test of time.
“This year, senior year, she is just totally a different person, and I just take it as she’s grown up,” Brandi said.
At home, Grace said she feels more comfortable opening up with members of her family, but the seniors’ biggest change involves her relationship with her not-yet 2-year-old niece Ava Lett.
Brandi said when Lett visits these days, the baby has eyes for only Grace.
“She’ll pick flowers, and then she will hand them to you for you to smell them,” Grace said. “It is a real enjoyment.”
The senior used to worry that if she talked with the baby, Lett would decide she didn’t like her. On Monday afternoon, Grace couldn’t help but laugh at how absurd that sounded to repeat out loud.
Of course, her newfound confidence has also carried over into life at school.
“It feels good not having to go into the class and be worried that the teacher is going to call on me to say something,” Grace said. “Because like my face would get all red, and I would get shy and start stuttering.”
Finding her voice
Becoming a captain may have provided Grace with the motivation to break out of her shell, but it didn’t change overnight.
The first time Grace walked out and instructed the soccer team to begin stretching, she felt awkward. She also felt weird the next practice, but those feelings began to fade into the background over time.
“It is weird,” junior Addison Woodruff said of Grace’s transformation. “But I’m also just so proud of her just looking, of course being with her for five years, it is crazy seeing the quiet kid go to the one that is leading everybody pushing, but I love it, and it makes me so happy.”
One of Grace’s biggest tests came before a rematch with Jacksonville on April 16 after Lincoln lost 1-0 the first time around.
“They really felt defeated. We all did,” Grace said, referring to her teammates’ mindset ahead of the game. “So I went out there, and I gave a pregame speech and all that, and it was encouraging, but then at the end, I kind of felt bad because I said if you don’t want to play and do all this, then you shouldn’t be out here with the team.
“But I think it opened up a lot of people’s minds like okay, we’ve really got to keep going. We can’t just go out here like they’re going to beat us. They already beat us once.”
Bailey wasn’t around to witness that speech, but he did notice a difference in his players once the whistle sounded.
“The first time, we were unsure of ourselves. ... Maybe we didn’t believe that we were the better team even though we played like it at times,” Bailey said. “And the second time around, we believed. I really think we thought we were going to win that game.”
Lincoln fell 3-2 after losing in penalty kicks. Still, Bailey said he was proud of that effort and later credited that performance against Jacksonville as instrumental in helping Lincoln secure a victory in the opening round of the playoffs when it went to penalty kicks as well.
As much as Bailey hates to see Grace leave his program now, the head coach said she went out with a bang in her final performance. Perhaps more importantly, she will now leave Lincoln the same confidence in herself that her coaches, teammates and family members have had for years.
“That is probably one of the things that I have been most proud of is how far she has come as a leader,” Bailey said. “There have been times where things needed to be said from someone other than me, and I don’t even have to tell her.
“She is holding our team accountable. She is also being encouraging. She is picking girls up when they’ve had tough times. She’s pushed girls when they needed to be pushed. She’s led with a lot of heart.”