Hayden Johnston plays soccer like a girl.
A girl who can play with anyone, even the best boys in the area.
Johnston is a sophomore on the Little Flower High School soccer team, and while she might be best known for being a star in the Catholic League, she stays in shape during the offseason by playing for a host of club teams.
She plays for a United Philly U-17 team where the 15-year-old midfielder and forward mixes it up with girls who are older than her, just as she does in the Catholic League. This forces her to raise her game to compete, but it’s not the only way she stays ready.
The Fishtown native also plays for the Lansing Dynamo, a U-16 team that consists of all boys and Johnston.
So far, it’s teaching her a lot, and making her a better, stronger soccer player. And it didn’t take her long to get the respect of all her boy teammates.
“My cousin played on the team and they needed a couple of players so they asked if I wanted to play,” Johnston said. “At first, it was very nerve wracking playing with all boys, but the more I played with them, the more I got used to it.”
Boys and girls soccer is very different. The biggest difference is the strength of the boys. Johnston has all the skill she needs to compete, but it took a little while to get up to speed with the physicality of the boys game. Now, she’s one of the boys.
“The biggest difference I think is that boys are a lot more aggressive,” Johnston said. “They’ll push me off the ball. It made me have to play stronger and tougher. The older girls play like that, too, and I know the higher I go in soccer, the stronger the players are, so playing with the boys is actually helping me.”
Johnston mostly plays forward with the boys team. On the girls team, depending on the situation, she plays forward or midfield, though she prefers playing up top and scoring goals. It’s not as easy scoring against the boys, but she has found the back of the net a few times on penalty kicks.
“Most of the boys on defense are fast, but so am I, so I’m good with it,” Johnston said. “I get pushed off the ball a lot, but I’m tougher and I’m running through. It was annoying at first, but now that I’m stronger, I’m doing better.
“I have scored, but they were on penalty kicks. I was really excited. All the boys gave me a high five, it was a good feeling, I guess. I don’t get nervous anymore, after a couple of games, now I’m fine. All the boys talk to me and all now. I’m one of the boys, I guess.”
This is just setting the stage for Johnston to have an even bigger year as a junior.
In the fall, Johnston led the Sentinels to the Cathoilic League playoffs where they fell in the quarterfinals to Archbishop Ryan after dropping the regular season finale to the Ragdolls in a tight game.
The PCL was very balanced this year, and Little Flower had some big wins during the season. Some of them were more memorable than others.
“The biggest game we had this year was when we beat St. Hubert, that was big because it’s a huge rivalry game,” Johnston said. “I think we were pretty good this year. It was a hard year, but we played hard together. We had a great team and we love our coach. I think we’ll be even better next year.
“We did 10 times better this year than last year, and we could have won more games, but we’re going to try harder next year and hopefully we do better. I’m going to be a leader, and that’s something I like doing. It’s not hard because when you’re helping people and helping them do better, I love doing that because it’s fun to help people. I’m just trying to help them, and stuff like that.”
While Johnston stays busy with soccer, she’s not a one-sport star at Little Flower. During the winter, she’s a swing guard on the basketball team and when the spring rolls around, she’ll play on the lacrosse team, led by her sister, the team’s coach.
“At first, I didn’t want her coaching because I didn’t want people to think she was playing because of her sister, but my sister is hard on me,” said Johnston, who plays midfielder. “She treats me the same way, I don’t talk back, I know what to do. At home it’s a different story, but she’s a great coach and she’s made me better.”
Still, don’t think little sister is going to follow in big sister’s footsteps. As much as she loves lacrosse, it’s not her favorite sport.
“Soccer is my favorite,” said Johnston, who aims to be a professional soccer player after college. “It’s good to do something else. When I’m not doing soccer, it helps me for soccer.
“It’s great for staying in shape. I made All-Catholic in all three. It was crazy, I didn’t think going in I would get it, especially because I never played lacrosse in my life, so I was so surprised. Lacrosse is easy when you know how to run fast. I get the ball and sprint up the field.
“It definitely helps to play other sports. But soccer is my favorite. I think the other sports are just going to make me better.”