CLIFTON PARK — Before and after games, it's a rare site when Bethlehem eighth-grader Claire Hutton doesn't have a soccer ball in her hands or inches from her feet.
"People tell me it's like a third leg," Hutton said. "It's part of me. I'll bring it to the mall or the baseball field for my brother's games. For three or four years now, it's been with me everywhere I go."
That includes the soccer field where, of course, Hutton will not hesitate for a moment to kick the object of her affection with a forceful blow.
Hutton did that twice Thursday, and goals were the result as Bethlehem defeated Shenendehowa 3-1 in a rematch from last year's Section II Class AA title game that the Eagles also won.
Hutton played a significant role for that Bethlehem edition that made it all the way to the state championship game with her scoring and play-making ability. This year, she stronger, faster and in several ways a more complete player.
"When talent and hard work come together, that's when you get the great ones," Bethlehem coach Tom Rogan said.
Hutton spent a lot of time in the offseason kicking the ball, and doing it with great thump.
"With Claire and all great players, you find a part of their game they need work on and improve," Rogan said. "Striking the ball from distance was something we talked about at our exit meeting [last year]."
Hutton scored 11 goals as a seventh-grader when she made the all-state second team, and surpassed that total Thursday. Her second-half goals gave Bethlehem 1-0 and 3-0 leads, and gave the combination forward/midfielder 13 this fall.
"I thought we had a good first half creating opportunities," Rogan said. "I told the girls to keep doing what we're doing."
What Rogan did was move Hutton from the midfield to a forward spot for the second half, and Hutton played the lead role as the Eagles dealt the Plainsmen their first Suburban Council defeat in a game that matched state-ranked rivals.
"She [Hutton] studies the game and is so excited to learn," Shenendehowa coach Holli Nirsberger said. "You can see that in her growth."
Hutton showed a new-found aggression in the second half with some strong runs toward the cage. She finished off one of those with a solid rip that gave Bethlehem a 1-0 lead with 19:22 left.
"Last year, when I got a step [ahead of a defender], I'd cut back or pull it back," Hutton said. "This year, when I get a step on them, I'll cut in front of them and keep going."
Hutton found an open lane, took it, and the 13-year-old scored again with 11:11 left when she knocked in a rebound after her initial drive.
"In the sectional finals last year, when a cross came to her, she did a bike," Nirsberger. "I was like, 'What?' I wouldn't have tried that in college."
Hutton sandwiched her goals around another by fellow eighth-grader Anna Nichols with 17:04 remaining.
"Our will as a team is strong. We never give up," Hutton said. "We practice like it's a game and it carries through."
Senior Dani Casey scored a late goal for Shenendehowa.
Hutton had a ball at her feet as she conducted a postgame interview.
"She never leaves the ball," Rogan said. "It goes with her all the time."