Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
CHILLICOTHE — If you’d ask her, Sydney Free would never take credit for any of her accomplishments during the past four years.
She’d consistently deflect all of that recognition towards her teammates, the defenses that she played alongside and the coaching staffs that put her in a position to be successful.
But the truth is that when Free played her last game at Unioto, she did so as one of the best — if not the best — goalkeepers to ever grace the pitch in Southern Ohio.
In the past four seasons, Free has led Unioto to an overall mark of 57-17-6. She’s pitched 35 shutouts, which is good enough to be tied for the 21st most in OHSAA history. Oh, and there’s the small detail of Unioto’s three district championships in the past four seasons.
All that for a player who didn’t even know if she’d make the varsity roster as a freshman.
“When I got that opportunity [to play as a freshman], the girls welcomed me and that was nice to have,” Free said. “I’ve had a great back line all four years, and that’s really helped me. I like winning and to be able to win a district title three years is amazing. I can’t think of any way my career could’ve gone better, honestly.”
Way back on Oct. 26, 2017, Free had her coming out party as a freshman. Her seven-save performance in a 1-0 win over undefeated Fairfield Union, one that was complemented by four consecutive saves to preserve a shutout, set the tone for the next four seasons.
That win came in a Division II district semifinal, which paved the way to Unioto’s first district title since 2010 — the Shermans eventually beat Chillicothe by a 3-1 final to win the crown.
It also showed Free that she belonged.
“I felt like the defense had really carried me that season and I hadn’t really contributed a whole lot,” Free said. “That game kind of solidified that I was alright on the varsity team and that I was really supposed to be there.”
Since that fateful night, Free has done nothing but cement her name in the history books.
She played her position at an elite level from a physical standpoint, but was even better when it came to the mental side of the game. Her soccer IQ helped her command the Shermans’ defense throughout her career but it also saved numerous goals and, eventually, wins.
“I’ve been around the team since I was in third or fourth grade. So I’ve been able to learn in that way,” Free said. “I’ve also had a lot of great coaches that have helped me. [Unioto coach] Jeremy [Clark] was my goalkeeper trainer for multiple years before he was my high school coach. And being able to play on really good club teams was really helpful.”
As a senior, Free put a capper on her career by leading Unioto to conference, sectional and district titles. She allowed one goal in league play, posted 13 shutouts and was a central reason why the Shermans topped Warren by a 1-0 final to win a district championship.
That’s why she has been selected as SOSA’s co-Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
And watchful eyes were on her at all times.
Free’s younger sister Maya was right behind her every step of the way, quite literally. She’s spent the past four years as Sydney’s ball girl, making sure she was never in a crunch.
Sydney will now look to pass the torch to Maya, who wants to be a freshman goalkeeper at Unioto next fall.
“I’ve loved having Maya there with me. She’s always been a huge help,” Free said of her sister. “It’s a good experience for her as well. She gets to see the level of competition we’ve had. We’ve had a lot of good opponents and our teams have been really good these past four years. She’ll be able to come in with a leadership mentality because she knows what needs to be done.”
As one career ends, another begins, but Sydney’s fingerprints will be on Unioto’s program for some time. She set a high standard for future goalkeepers, including her sister, and was a model of consistency in between the pipes throughout her illustrious career.
Her shoes are an enormous pair to fill.
“I think we started off strong my freshman year. Then every year, it seemed we reached that level of success and built confidence out of it,” Free said. “I really think that each year, as we get a little bit older and confident, we’ve seen that we can compete with some of the bigger programs. I think next season, a lot of the juniors that have been around, who have seen that success, will be able to step it up and show they can play at a high level.”