PANAMA CITY BEACH — The first half of Thursday's 8-0 victory over Mosley was a bit of a frustration for Braden Masker, with the Arnold senior forward just missing on several opportunities to put the ball in the back of the net.
His first chance came in the seventh minute when a rocket shot off his left foot from near point-blank range was stopped by the Dolphins' keeper. A couple of minutes later, Masker's attempted right-footed volley off of a corner kick was stopped, with the ball bouncing right back to Masker for another shot on goal, which was also saved.
After scoring a goal on a penalty kick in the 32nd minute, Masker just narrowly missed another opportunity to score in the run of play when he cut the ball back onto his right foot on a run up the left side and curled a shot just barely over the far side crossbar.
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In the 66th minute, with the Marlins leading 7-0, it was Masker who put the game to bed by finally getting his goal, finding himself one v. one with the keeper after a Dolphins giveaway in their own half. It's the kind of a situation every striker dreams of. In that moment, Masker's focus is singular.
"Really just score, score, score, score, score," he said. "That's the only thing I'm thinking about. I'm not thinking about the fans or anything outside, I'm just thinking about scoring."
Scoring is something that the senior has done with alarming frequency this season, with his two goals on Thursday giving him 29 for the season. That puts him in a tie for second in the state and seventh nationally in total goals this season and puts him eight goals off of Arnold's single-season record of 37 by Tyler Evans in the 2007-08 season.
With two more regular season games and a potentially deep postseason run remaining, that mark is well within reach for Masker, who is averaging just under two goals per game for the season.
Becoming Arnold's best single-season goal scorer is a distinction that would be meaningful for Masker, though he said it is not his primary focus.
"It would mean a lot to put my name in the record books here," he said. "But overall the main goal is another state championship. That's the main focus."
Masker, who has signed a letter-of-intent to play college soccer for the University of North Florida next season, scored 12 goals last season for the Marlins' dominant 25-0-2 state championship club. That was a respectable total, though nothing that would signal a record-breaking performance was on the horizon.
'He's turned it up several notches'
Going from merely good to possibly historically great was a process that started with a physical transformation. After playing at just 125 pounds as a junior, Masker put on 30 pounds of muscle in the offseason to get up to 155, making it tougher for defenders to muscle him out of position and off the ball.
"He spent a lot of time in the weight room in the summer," Arnold coach Jonathan Hammond said. "He devoted a lot of time to putting on some muscle and some size and you can tell that has made all the difference for him. If you look at pictures of him from last year he looks kind of scrawny. This year he's beefed up. He just really dedicated himself in the weight room and I think that's helped him out big this season."
While the difference in physicality has been stark, Hammond said that Masker's mental approach to the game has also played a big part in his success. Always a poised and level-headed player, Hammond said that Masker's belief in his abilities has given him an extra edge as a senior.
"I think he's just playing with supreme confidence, which is huge for a player," he said. "Soccer can be a game that challenges you mentally as well as physically. It's just his demeanor, he's a guy that doesn't get too high or too low on the field. He kind of just looks even-keeled no matter what he's doing on the field."
Of course, confidence is key, but the source of that confidence is supreme talent. Masker's ability to dribble around or even through defenders to create space where there appears to be none, along with his accuracy when he does shoot for goal, has made him a terror for opposing defenders.
"I think several things go into being a top goal-scorer," Hammond said. "I think one is confidence, just having confidence on the ball. He wants the ball and asks for it, demands it, but he also has the technical ability to beat players. And he's not just beating them, he's making them look silly, putting it between their legs, knocking it around them, and he has the speed and strength which he worked on in the offseason so not too many people can just knock him off the ball or catch him in a full sprint."
Masker started to flash some of that potential as a dangerous attacking player last year as a member of Hammond's Florida Roots U19 team in its inaugural season in the National Premier Soccer League.
Masker made just four appearances for the Roots but scored eight goals. That might be why Masker hasn't been nearly as surprised by his gawdy goal scoring numbers this season as other might be.
"I kind of saw it coming," he said. "I was coming off the NPSL season where I led in scoring there with the eight goals, so I was already building up that confidence. It was pretty much easy to carry over into this season. It improved my game a lot playing with older playings, having older players on your team mentoring you, getting to learn a lot from them. It really helped."
While Masker may have seen it coming, even Hammond said he has been pleasantly surprised by the degree to which he has elevated his game from one season to the next. Even with as many players as he has coached through the years, Hammond said that Masker's senior leap stands out.
"Braden was always a talented player. He made varsity as a freshman and even started several games, so the talent was always there, but as far as production goes, I've never seen anybody go from what he was to absolutely dominating on the field," he said. "He's just turned it up several notches. He's a completely different player and people are having a hard time stopping him.
"Obviously our team is trying to win another state championship, but I know he's got some personal goals he's trying to achieve and I'm hoping he can achieve them."
This article originally appeared on The News Herald: High school soccer: Arnold senior nears record-breaking goal total