Meredith Haakenson's early soccer instruction made her the envy of the neighborhood.

Backyard "World Cup" games against three future college soccer players — older brother Luke (Creighton), his best friend, Kevin Hoof (Northern Michigan), and Hoof's older sister, Lauren (Concordia-St. Paul) — tested her toughness. Despite tears and bruises, she came back that much more determined.

Haakenson is committed to Michigan but remains focused on a special season. Maple Grove earned its first state tournament appearance and Haakenson, a central midfielder, was named the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year.

Haakenson has scored 18 goals and added nine assists and ranks as her team's hardest-working defender.

"She does special things in the game that other players just don't do, and we see it all the time," Maple Grove coach Ben LeVahn said. "Other teams have to know where she is at all times, and she's still able to do what she does."

LeVahn joked that he saw Haakenson as a freshman at varsity tryouts and needed "12 seconds to write her name in pen into the starting lineup."

She later received the Gatorade Player of the Year in Minnesota as a junior and donated the $1,000 award to The Sanneh Foundation, a St. Paul-based youth initiative run by retired soccer player Tony Sanneh.

"She's driven, focused and a class act," Blaine coach Scott Zachmann said.

Elevating her play this fall, Haakenson also earned Class 2A Ms. Soccer honors from the state coaches association. She led a talented Crimson team to its first section final victory after two consecutive losses.

"Our goal was to get to state, and we faced it head-on," Haakenson said.

A similar attitude helped her survive those cherished rough-and-tumble backyard games of her youth.

"The neighborhood girls thought I was crazy to play against older boys," Haakenson said. "They'd sit on the playset and watch."