Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, California, has produced some of sports’ most successful and impactful stars.
Between Tom Brady (class of 1995), Barry Bonds (’82) and Lynn Swann (’70) there are 11 Super Bowls, 762 home runs, plenty of fanfare and three diplomas from the Catholic powerhouse.
While former Mead athletic director Dick Cullen didn’t graduate from JSHS, he coached girls soccer there in 1972 before moving to Spokane in 1976. He coached the first girls soccer team at Mead in 1984 and coached the boys in 1985.
Cullen had four children, all of whom were soccer players in their athletic careers. He also had the privilege of coaching all four.
His son, Rich Cullen, became a professional soccer player for the Colorado Rapids and the Seattle Sounders.
Rich was selected 67th overall in the 2000 MLS Superdraft out of the Air Force Academy. After retiring from goalkeeping in 2003, he still holds the Falcons’ record for career saves and shutouts.
Rich’s daughter, Mercedes, is a senior and the starting keeper for Mead, winning first-team All-Greater Spokane League accolades a season ago.
Since the age of 4, Mercedes has played soccer. Since she was 8, she has stood between the posts as a goalkeeper. As she got older, she continued to volunteer to be the goalie, but she was scored on a lot while the size of the goal grew.
But that didn’t scare her toward one of the outfield positions, nor did it keep her from learning the trade from her dad who has consistently shifted any credit away from himself for her success.
“Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the child, the goalkeeper, and the player, to walk through the door and take advantage of the opportunities,” Rich said.
Mercedes has run through her door, planting herself firmly in position to play soccer at the next level.
It has been a long road with a lot of support for Mercedes, who attended soccer camps run by her dad. She grew up with a soccer ball at her feet and has been molded mentally by her soccer-heavy family.
Starting with her grandpa – who didn’t start playing soccer until he was in his early 20s – Mercedes has absorbed as much mental and fundamental advice as she could.
A couple of seasons ago, she came off her line to help clear a ball, clattering into her defender while she did. Mercedes was rattled from the contact and her grandpa realized it at halftime.
“I pulled her aside and said, ‘Hey, look, you made the right decision to go after that ball. It was just total accident. You did not do it on purpose. No one thinks you did. Get out there and do the best you can, don’t even worry it,’ ” Dick said.
Thus, the life of a keeper.
The last line of defense, alone on an island.
“Being a keeper, you’re either a hero or goat,” Dick said. “And she seems to handle that without pressure. And just a nice even-keel attitude.”
Even when she makes a mistake or gets scored on, she has taught herself to bounce back. Teams expect the keeper be a positive force, able to be a beacon of strength no matter the score line, because if the keeper checks out, the team follows suit.
“You can see the whole field, you are the leader on the field,” Mercedes said. “Your team can’t have a goalkeeper that’s just pouting or feeling sorry for themselves for a mistake that they made.”
Those bounce-backs are made more difficult with little chance at redemption.
Rich said that one of the more recent statistics he read was 94% of the game is played away from the goalmouth.
It is entirely possible the only game action a goalie receives in a half is a goal being slotted home past an attempted foot save. The psychology of rebounding is a hurdle that many struggle to overcome.
“It takes a lot of fortitude, mental strength, confidence (to be a keeper),” Rich said.
Outside of being a mental brick house, her performance in net could be compared to that of a brick wall.
Her shot-stopping ability has improved to the point where she believes that is her best trait as a goalie.
She can make the easy save, the acrobatic save and the save where she just has to get big.
On top of trying to keep a clean sheet, the newer-aged style of keeper needs to distribute well and to play from the back.
Mercedes again gathered more knowledge from her grandpa, who helped guide her decision-making.
“My grandpa is super soccer smart,” she said. “He helped me with distribution, knowing when to play fast, when to hold on to the ball, when to slow the game down. And also just being very aggressive.”
For being so instrumental in her growth, dad and grandpa have made it clear that it doesn’t matter how much they teach or instruct, it is up to the athlete – to their daughter and granddaughter
“Mercedes is just so special to watch,” Dick said. “A great, great young lady. I don’t advise her much just I think mostly it’s the mental part. Her dad is the one that gives her all the good technique work.”
But either way, soccer has given the Cullens generations of stories and lifetimes of connections. It was their first foray into athletics, their neutral ground, even if they found out soccer wasn’t their sport.
“Not everybody’s a soccer player,” Rich said of his three siblings and four kids. “It just happened to be one of those early catalysts to open up some doors, create opportunities, and then I think flourish after that, and certainly my siblings have flourished.”
As someone who stuck with soccer and is in her final season in blue and gold, Mercedes is battling for first-year head coach Casey Curtis.
Curtis comes to Mead after a 10-year hiatus from coaching, but previously led the Lewis and Clark programs. He led the girls soccer program to unparalleled success, winning multiple league titles and managing two state quarterfinal appearances, both program firsts.
What has helped Curtis’ transition is that Mercedes has bought into his coaching style and system. Having Mercedes and the rest of the seniors behind him has made the transition easier.
“If (Mercedes) doesn’t buy in, the rest of the team won’t buy it,” Curtis said. “It’s very fortunate to have someone like Mercedes who understands what hard work is. And she sets the tone for the rest of the group.”
It also helps that Curtis is a Mead graduate. His coach was Dick Cullen and his teammate at Mead was Rich Cullen.
Now, almost 30 years later, the Cullens and Curtis are back to torment the GSL – Mead won the league every season Curtis and Rich Cullen were playing – albeit this time on the girls side.
Mead girls soccer hasn’t won a GSL title outright since the 2007 season, snagging two shared titles with Curtis’ Lewis and Clark in 2008 and with Mt. Spokane in 2009.
It will be up to Mercedes and the Panthers to navigate the tough GSL waters to have potentially two more months of soccer before she graduates, leaving her teammates as she heads to college.
Opportunities at the next level are available for her, just like her dad; it just depends on the proper fit.
She will look for playing time, team culture, academics and financial details before she makes a decision.
“Thankfully, and by the grace of God, I think there are a couple of playing opportunities that are starting to show themselves,” Rich said. “She has not yet committed, but I’m very proud of her. She is doing very well in the classroom as well.”
As the current Cullen wraps up her story at Mead, the family soccer book still has empty pages to fill, as Dick still advises his grandkids, Rich runs goalkeeping camps and Mercedes is just under a year away from stepping foot on a college field.
For Curtis, he isn’t surprised to see Mercedes succeeding in the all-familiar Cullen footsteps.
The Cullens are built for succeeding on the field/court and in the classroom.
“I think it’s a dedication to doing what’s right,” Curtis said. “And working hard. And being excellent. Knowing that family background and the work rate, the work rate is the critical thing that we tell the kids. Hard work beats talent, and most talent works.
“Well, Mercedes is talented, and she works.”