- Mike Grimala, ESPNHS
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Josh Beard and Schaumburg boys' soccer coach Hamid Mehreioskouei remember their first meeting very differently.
Beard, a freshman at the time, recalls being pulled along to a varsity workout by his older brother, a junior on the team. Fighting back nerves — rumor had it the coach possessed the Bobby Knight gene — he walked up to Mehreioskouei at midfield and introduced himself.
"I heard he could be brutal on players," Beard says. "As soon as I said hello, he says, 'Oh look, the freshman's talking,' really loud, and everyone got a kick out of it. He gave me a little bit of a hard time."
While the incident is burned into Beard's memory, what stands out most in Mehreioskouei's mind is what happened next.
Practicing with the varsity, it was apparent almost immediately that Beard was one of the best players on the field. The coach made up his mind to start the freshman from Day 1, and Beard has rewarded him with All-State performances over the past three seasons. During that time, the senior has also served as the kind of leader that comes along maybe once every generation.
Playing mostly center back, Beard scored 17 goals, dished out eight assists and played some of the best defense in the state last year. A hip injury had shortened Beard's sophomore campaign, but last season he led Schaumburg to the Class AA super-sectionals, despite the Saxons being seeded No. 8 in their section.
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"He's been as good as you can hope for in a high school athlete," says Mehreioskouei. "As a team we've put a lot on him, pretty much right from the beginning, and he's never once backed down or failed to step up and deliver. He loves that responsibility."
At 5-foot-8, Beard might be a little undersized as a defender, but you'd never consider it a limitation by watching him play. He can use his strength and athleticism to move people around, and opposing scorers are in for a miserable day when Beard locks on to them.
Heading into the playoffs last year, Mehreioskouei devised a game plan that featured Beard man-marking the opponent's top scoring threat, allowing the remaining players to basically go 10-on-10.
Beard had been playing center mid in the games leading up to the postseason, but he made the switch seamlessly and played a series of what Mehreioskouei calls "perfect games."
"We played the Nos. 1, 2 and 4 seeds in the tournament, and those teams had three All-Area forwards," says Mehreioskouei. "Josh took every one of them out of the game completely. He locked them down, and that's the biggest reason why we advanced as far as we did."
If Beard felt any pressure knowing he was the center of the team's entire postseason strategy, he didn't show it.
"I took pride in it because I knew it was a huge role," says Beard, who has committed to the University of Illinois at Chicago. "I knew that our team could play well enough to win if I did what coach was asking me to do, and that was basically shutting that one kid down.
"Doing it well and getting that pat on the back from coach after the game, that felt really good."
Mehreioskouei felt comfortable giving him the assignment because Beard has emerged as the ultimate leader. Four-year team captains are a rare species in high school athletics, and Beard is one of the few.
A three-game losing streak in 2005 prompted him to speak up on the team bus — as a freshman — and point out to his veteran teammates that everyone had to be more accountable. Joking around and not taking the game seriously wouldn't be tolerated, he said, and his words had an effect on the team's big-name players (including Beard's older brother).
Mehreioskouei appointed him captain before the next game, and Beard has been serving in that role ever since.
"I'd never been a captain before," Beard says. "It meant a lot to me. Wearing the armband, that means you're the one that has to hold the team together when things aren't going well. I think that's when people realized that I wasn't just a freshman who could play and that I could offer more to the team."
Employing Beard in the back as a defender worked for Schaumburg last year, but Mehreioskouei expects the team to need more scoring punch this season. His solution? Move Beard to forward and let him do his thing.
"Josh is a lot faster, stronger and better than most of the players around him," Mehreioskouei says. "We're going to put him up top, give him cart blanche to find the ball and allow him to create offense. He'll have the freedom to do what he wants with the ball."
Beard has played forward for his club team, and he's versatile enough to handle the change without much problem. Indeed, Mehreioskouei says the only position he'd hesitate to stick Beard at is goalie. Beard is excited about the move, and he's looking forward to showing off his offensive skills.
"I try to set the bar pretty high for myself," he says. "I think I can score 30 goals and get 20 assists this year. I think that's attainable. Then again, if I score zero and we still win the state championship, I'd take it."
Don't put it past him. Beard has shown he can do just about everything on the soccer field, so scoring 30 goals isn't out of the question. And a state title? After what Beard did in the postseason last year, it wouldn't come as a surprise.
If their championship hopes come to fruition, Beard and his coach can replace the memory of their first meeting with a much happier one.
Mike Grimala covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com