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MERCURY ALL-AREA: Selfless Willis’ record-setting season earns her Player of the Year nod

Mahogany Willis has a passion for photography. It’s part of what the Owen J. Roberts senior hopes to pursue when she heads to college next fall.

The hobby is fitting really: the mild-mannered Willis prefers to be behind the lens.

Unfortunately for Willis, when the landscape is a soccer field, there’s no changing the point of focus: it’s on her every time.

Her skill, pace and nose for goal has demanded the attention of her team’s hopes and the opposition’s worries for years.

Willis’ four-year scholastic career culminated with her finest season as she scored 37 goals, both Pioneer Athletic Conference and OJR single-season records, and finishing with an OJR-record 101 career goals while carrying the Wildcats to a Pioneer Athletic Conference championship and the PIAA Class 6A semifinals.

After leading Owen J. Roberts (22-4) on its deepest run since 2011, Willis’ postseason accolades include United Soccer Coaches Association All-American team, Southeast Pa. Soccer Coaches Assoc. Team, and Mercury All-Area Player of the Year.

Owen J. Roberts’ Mahogany Willis (9) and Emily Sands (34) celebrate after the Wildcats won the PAC girls soccer championship last fall. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

Owen J. Roberts has had its share of prolific scorers during its glory days of the early 2000s and beyond, but all are left looking up at Willis after this fall. Upon scoring her 35th goal on Nov. 4, she overtook the 34-goal seasons of Laura Kane (2000) and current OJR assistant Stacy Blevins (2002).

Her dribbling and ability to blow by defenders to create scoring chances was a well known, but nearly unstoppable commodity.

“She was always a home run waiting to happen,” OJR coach Joe Margusity said. “Just the threat of her disrupted other teams’ defenses. When they were marking her, that allowed other people to be open or have 1-v-1 situations. We never adjusted what we did because of another team, but most every team adjusted to us because of Mahogany.”

Incredibly, Willis scored a goal against every opponent faced this fall.

Owen J. Roberts’ Mahogany Willis carries the ball forward before earning a penalty kick for the Wildcats last fall. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

It is all the more impressive considering she entered the season so conflicted about her relationship with the sport. Between often feeling like an outsider while playing a year up on the Vincent United ‘98 club team and feeling previous OJR teams suffered from some players putting individual motivations in front of the team’s, Willis had soured to the point she was trying to ‘just get through it.’

“Beginning of the year before preseason I wasn’t feeling it and viewed it like, ‘It’s my last high school season, I might as well just try to get through it.’

“But even the first day of preseason, we had to run this crazy mountain and the team bonding from that moment and the rest of the season, you could tell, it was totally different. It got better and better for me.”

Owen J. Roberts’ Mahogany Willis (9) and Mia Baumgartner (25) smile after connecting for Willis’ second-half goal during a game last season against Boyertown. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

She had decommitted from Wilmington University amid her patch of discontent but has since chosen to attend Indiana University of Pennsylvania where she intends to play soccer.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to play soccer in college at all, but then this high school season happened and it was amazing. We went really far, were really good friends and had nice bonding moments. It made me realize I want to do this in college because I know (having another positive playing experience) can happen again.”

The team atmosphere was lifted by senior classmates Kylie Cahill, Caroline Thompson, Kali Pupo and Julia Dalton – all of whom are members of Willis’ current club team, West-Mont United Sirens.

But maybe the biggest difference of all was the partnership she built with freshman forward Sarah Kopec. What started with skepticism became a shining spot for Willis.

“It was Sarah,” Willis said as the big difference for her this season. “In the preseason I thought, ‘Crap, she’s younger and isn’t going to know what she’s doing.’ But I came to realize she taught me a lot too, about field awareness because I didn’t have enough of it before. I would help her with making turns and knowing when to shoot. We learned a lot from each other.”

Owen J Roberts’ Mahogany Willis (9) runs past Central Dauphin defenders Brooke Steach (33) and Lexi Johnson (14) during the Wildcats’ victory on Nov. 11. (Sarah Pietrowski – For Digital First Media)

OJR’s move to a 3-5-2 formation to accommodate Willis and Kopec gave the senior more freedom to roam, her favored spot being on the left side.

Margusity points out that while Willis was OJR’s dominant scoring threat, she didn’t do all the scoring. The Wildcats scored a southeast Pa.-best 88 goals, meaning 51 goals came from elsewhere (Kopec scored 17).

And that’s just the way Willis liked it.

“Coach (Margusity) said, ‘This is one of the first teams in a while where no one cares about themselves,’” Willis said. “It was all team, team, team.”

The conundrum that Mahogany Willis is the person making herself the center of attention by putting up record-setting statistics isn’t comfortable there, making her something of a reluctant hero.

“I don’t like the personal attention,” Willis said. “It’s why I play a team sport because I don’t like things focused all on me.”

The third of Kirt and Michele Willis’ four children, Willis was earmarked for big things already as a freshman.

“She plays for the love of the sport,” Margusity said. “When she was a freshman, I asked her, ‘Do you think you’ll ever be an All-American?’ She looked up and said, ‘What’s that?’”

She achieved that status this fall, one of just four players in Pennsylvania to do so. But not much has changed.

“I hardly know what it means. People are like, ‘You’re so good, you got All-American.’ It’s a title, but I don’t know what it means.”

What it means is Willis is one of the best of the best in high school soccer in Pa. and beyond.

Not that it was what she was playing for.

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