By Tris Wykes

LEBANON – News of the new, hotshot goalkeeper in town reached Breck Taber four years ago. Daughter of a college coach. Assertive. Athletic. Potentially the whole package. So the Lebanon High girls soccer coach closely watched Sally Rainey’s summer league debut about a month before she began her freshman year.

Here came the first shot – right through Rainey’s legs and into the net.

“I was mortified,” Rainey recalled. 

Said Taber: “I wondered a little bit. But after that, it was save after save. And she scored playing out later in the game.”

Sally Rainey has starred in net for the Lebanon High girls soccer team for four seasons.

Rainey now leaves offense to others, but the Upper Valley hasn’t featured as talented a girls soccer goalie in at least a decade. The senior’s ability to read the play, combined with elite shot-stopping and a willingness to go hard after the ball and hold onto it, draws rave reviews. 

Vocal and fierce, the 5-foot-9 Rainey is also caring and relentlessly cheerful. If you refer to “Sally” around Lebanon High and for much of the area’s sporting population as a whole, everyone knows who you’re talking about.

“I haven’t seen talent as exceptional in my career,” 17th-year Hanover High coach Doug Kennedy said recently. “My girls talk about her before games. Her presence is so overwhelming that I have to convince them that she’s still just a girl.”

The daughter of Dartmouth College women’s soccer coach Ron Rainey, Sally clearly could have competed for the Big Green. The pair decided that wasn’t the best fit, however, and she’s committed to play for the University of New Hampshire. The prospect was impressed by the campus and Wildcats coach Steve Welham, a former pro goalkeeper and onetime member of the U.S national team’s scouting staff for that position.

Ron Rainey remembers watching his daughter make a difficult save as a freshman and suddenly recognizing she was a college prospect. At the club level, Sally advanced from playing with New Hampshire’s Seacoast United to backstopping the Massachusetts team F.C. Stars. The latter features and competes against players headed to top 10 programs, said Ron Rainey, who sometimes dropped his daughter off at one field during a showcase and headed to another pitch to recruit.

“Sally’s gifted with her hands and you want somebody back there who’s a little bit of a protector,” said Ron Rainey, who’s never coached his daughter. “That fits with her personality and it’s something that comes naturally to her.”

Margaret Rainey, Ron’s wife and Sally’s mother, is a former University of Wisconsin all-region player who met her husband during graduate studies at the University of Iowa. Ron was then a Hawkeyes’ assistant and they lived in Iowa City from 2006-2013 when he returned as head coach. He was hired at Dartmouth in 2014. 

Sally Rainey, left and with teammate Megan Gradijan, has been a three-year captain for Lebanon High.

Wade, their oldest child, Sally, and younger sister Mary, now a Lebanon High sophomore, played assorted sports growing up. Swimming, softball, soccer, flag football, basketball, gymnastics and volleyball among them. 

Wade was a gridiron and hoops standout for Lebanon and is now a Clemson (S.C.) University freshman. Mary’s a midfield starter on her sister’s team. Their 30-year old cousin, Haley Kopmeyer, starred as a University of Michigan goalkeeper and played in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Sally Rainey has often been a peacemaker between her siblings, her mother said. Jammed into the back seat on long car rides, she would negotiate which movie to watch or what activity to undertake once they arrived. The middle child was usually the first at the bus stop in the mornings so she would have the most time to play, and was confident enough even as a tyke to ask adults for directions to the rest room in a restaurant.

Sally offered frequent opinions on where the family should stop to eat and what time would be best to depart, her mother remembers. And courage? The kid’s always had it in spades, recently finishing a game against Hanover with a steadily-bleeding nose suffered in a breakaway collision.

“She would be the one who didn’t know how to swim, but still jumped in the pool or rode her bike down a steep hill,” Margaret Rainey said. “She has an ability to shake things off and not think about it too much.”

That mindset is tailor-made for goalkeeping and Rainey, who first volunteered for the position so she wouldn’t have to run, has starred in a Lebanon program that is 26-36-11 during five seasons under Taber. The Raiders struggle to score, but are in almost every game because opponents cannot solve their netminder. 

Lebanon (5-1-1) visits Stevens (5-6) on Thursday in the NHIAA Division II playoffs’ opening round. The Cardinals twice lost by 3-0 scores to the Raiders during the regular season. 

Lebanon High goalkeeper Sally Rainey listens to coach Breck Taber during halftime.

“I count my lucky stars every day and now that the end is approaching, it’s terrifying,” said Taber, a former Raiders standout and college player who recalls that Rainey received votes for captain as a freshman. “I equate it to having a Cy Young-caliber pitcher with no run support.”

Rob Johnstone, Lebanon’s 27th-year boys soccer coach and a former Middlebury (Vt.) College player, tutors local goalkeepers during warm-weather sessions. He notes that Rainey, unlike virtually every other backstop her age, doesn’t have an easily-identifiable weak side. 

She sometimes took shots twice a day this past summer from Johnstone and three men’s college players – Lebanon graduates Owen Johnstone and Logan Falzarano and Hanover product Charlie Adams.

“She made more than her share of saves and every one she gave up, she was unhappy about,” Rob Johnstone said. “She’s a gregarious kid, but incredibly competitive and with a steely resolve.”

Taber was ready to lobby for his team’s gatekeeper at last season’s coaches meeting to pick all-state players. However, he said there was no need because three or four of his peers stood to say Rainey was the best. 

During a recent practice on a saturated field, Rainey’s gear was soaked and muddy as she approached every ball as if a game was on the line. A split second before a shot is unloaded, Rainey takes a small hop forward, reminiscent of Boston Red Sox star infielder Dustin Pedroia. 

“She has a first step and quick reaction you can’t teach,” said Taber, who deploys only three defenders because Rainey’s foot skills essentially make her the fourth. “She’s taken some serious collisions over the years and gotten up, because she’s strong as an ox.”

Rainey’s a starting basketball forward in the winter, the sport a link to her paternal grandfather, also named Ron Rainey, who was the men’s hoops coach at NCAA Division III Wilkes (Pa.) University for 13 seasons. Sally doesn’t play club basketball, which makes her unusual in the program. However, she’s the Raiders’ hardest worker said Tim Kehoe, who stepped down as Lebanon’s longtime coach after last season.

“The thing that stands out is her constant support of her classmates,” said Kehoe, who’s also one of the school’s gym teachers. “Her loyalty to her friends and teammates has always impressed me the most about her.”

Said Rainey: “It’s refreshing to be in the (basketball) action all the time and push someone. You’re getting so many more touches on the ball and you can miss a rebound and then go down and make a shot. There’s a little less pressure.”

Sally Rainey, right, greets Caroline Borger during pregame introductions.

Rainey is assistant moderator of Lebanon High’s student council and fifth-year principal Ian Smith credits her with helping create a sea change in the institution’s vibe. It previously had a rougher environment where faculty, administrators and students were sometimes at odds, but accountability and old-fashioned school spirit have taken over.

“I appreciate the appropriate persistence she’s shown to improve student life,” said Smith, a no-nonsense Lebanon graduate and former Raiders basketball player. “She means much more to our school than just being an excellent athlete.”

Rainey also works as a meal server at a Lebanon assisted-living facility and she’s a leader among Raiders athletes who have pushed for awareness and discussion of social justice. Raiders girls soccer players are among those who wear Black Lives Matter t-shirts before games.

“I love debates and school presentations,” Rainey said. “I’m a pretty opinionated person and that’s for sure translated onto the soccer field. I’m always trying to be a positive, reassuring voice.”

Well, almost always. During a recent game at Hanover, Rainey bellowed at several teammates with an intensity and tone not usually heard in the high school ranks. None appeared to take umbrage and the defense tightened up. 

“I’ve always been bossy,” Rainey said with a smile. “But there’s a double standard. You see it in politics. People think (U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) is crazy and scary, but if a man acts like that, it’s not considered a problem.”

Taber knows each game now may be his last with the young woman he describes as his unofficial assistant coach. The two often share intermission and postgame assessments with the team and Taber has only to communicate with Rainey to know off-field information will be promptly distributed and the line toed.

“The kids might not respond to me, but nobody ignores a text from Sally,” he said. “I’m sure next season I’m going to reach into my pocket and then realize I can’t message her anymore.”

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Sally Rainey’s lengthy punts are a field-position weapon for Lebanon High.