Golden Goal: HHI’s Brighton siblings celebrate pitch-perfect day

Golden Goal: HHI’s Brighton siblings celebrate pitch-perfect day

It seems so recently that John and Stephanie Brighton watched their children, Abi and James, fall in love with the beautiful game of soccer, oblivious to the journey they were about to begin. A ride that wasn’t always easy — years of early mornings, long road trips, and nonstop training — but it all culminated with the family exchanging those countless hours of hard work and sacrifice for a pair of collegiate titles on a perfect fall day.  

Soccer was a passion for the Brighton kids from the early days. They were only about 5 when they joined the Island Recreation leagues, a staple of so many childhoods in the area. James was hooked, and his excitement for the game motivated his sister. 

The game grew the siblings’ bond as the years went on. James was the mentor, the big brother, and Abi always tried to match his growing skills, dedication, and love for the game. As they approached the teenage years, soccer was a way of life in the Brighton household.

“My dad played in college when he was our age, so I was introduced to the sport by him,” James said. “Some of my earliest memories as a kid were watching Saturday morning games on TV and going out to the field. As I grew older, it was the one constant in my life and I stuck with it. Soccer was my passion, and when I discovered that, I put in as much work as I could to get to the highest level.” 

As James improved, Abi worked harder to keep up.

“Watching James become more involved with soccer at a young age really helped me get more involved,” said Abi. “The more I watched him grow as a player, it influenced me to want to go further and helped grow my love of the game. At that point, I joined travel soccer because I saw what James had been accomplishing, and I met a great group of people that became my teammates for the next eight years.” 

Both kids took to the Storm Soccer Academy in Savannah, under the tutelage of renowned coach Jeremy Aven. It was there that they found the training and work ethic that pushed them to the upper echelon of their ability. A routine morning started at 5 a.m., as the kids went to training before the school day even began. 

Juggling was more than just a way to show off to their friends. It was an avenue to build persistence, dedication, and skill that made them the players they are now. Days and nights were spent building up their footwork. At the academy, they were tested and routinely put on the spot to perform up to 1,000 consecutive juggles before practice. 

“That’s not something that a lot of coaches make players do, and it’s something that Jeremy was very adamant about,” Abi said. “He wanted us to focus on our touch and be able to perform all of these moves. At practice, you couldn’t be afraid to try new things, so it really made you comfortable to reach out as a player and expand your abilities to do stuff on the field.” 

The skills the Brightons developed at home led to opportunities elsewhere. The siblings were also members of the Olympic Development Program, gaining valuable opportunities to play alongside and against some of their highly-skilled peers. They took trips of a lifetime to explore places like Argentina and Costa Rica while playing the game they loved.

“(Jeremy) built both of us as players during our most crucial development point as kids,” James said. “That stayed with us throughout our careers and has done remarkable things for us.” 

James knew he had the ability to chase his dreams on the pitch, and when he turned 16 he got that chance. 

His hard work over his early teenage years earned him a variety of offers from elite development programs. Atlanta United FC was just getting off the ground, and the club made James an offer he couldn’t turn down — an opportunity to train with their youth development program and learn firsthand from the senior squad. 

It also meant that James had to leave home and start his new journey without his family by his side, but the chance was right there for him to elevate his game in a way that few other avenues could. It was impossible to pass up.

James took the offer and ran with it, excelling in his new home. He led the way in scoring for his U18/19 squad and put himself on the national recruiting radar. The center forward continued to develop his technique and scoring ability to grow into an ultra-reliable finisher and ball striker. 

“Playing at Atlanta was one of the best experiences I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “Being able to train with the professional team every day and learn from some of the best players in the country at a professional level was so helpful to me.”

After a sensational run at Atlanta United, he left a new player, one who was more than ready for the college game. James wanted a school with a solid program and, more important, great academics while staying close to home. 

He decided to bring his talents back to the Palmetto State and become a Clemson Tiger, hoping to lead a promising group forward after an NCAA tournament appearance in 2017. 

But just months before his freshman season, he was stopped in his tracks by a soccer player’s greatest fear — a torn ACL. After years of overcoming challenges on the field, his biggest test became one off the pitch. 

“No athlete wants to get injured for that long,” James recalls. “I was out for about 10 months, but the one thing I learned was that positivity and a never-quit attitude will get you through the toughest challenges in your life, and it was the hardest one to face so far. There was never a doubt in my mind that I would come back fitter, stronger, and better than I was before.” 

After redshirting in 2018, he returned in a monstrous way, scoring six goals along with two assists the next year. Brighton broke out early in the campaign with a goal and assist against Detroit Mercy on Sept. 2, and carried that momentum to becoming team captain just a year later. 

He kept it going with an excellent 2020 season, finishing second on the team in goals, highlighted by an overtime winner over Duke to pick up a crucial conference victory. James’ story, a lesson of dedication and perseverance, is something every athlete needs to hear, especially in times like these. 

Photo courtesy Clemson Athletics

Choosing a school to spend four years is no easy task, especially when you’re looking to balance academics and a passion for sport. Abi Brighton was weighing all the options, and zeroed in on nearby SEC and ACC programs, along with local schools like Furman. 

In the end, she found one that fit her vision perfectly. It was an institution with a renowned reputation for academic success, a prime location in a major city, and an up-and-coming program that fit her style of play perfectly. Vanderbilt was the perfect fit for Abi Brighton. 

A possession-oriented playmaker with a powerful leg, Brighton knew she could make an early contribution to the Commodores. She did all that and more in a freshman season like no other. 

“Coming in as a freshman, they kept telling me to fill the shoes of their old holding midfielder, and that wasn’t the position I was recruited for. I was a little on the edge of playing a position I wasn’t used to, but they told me what they wanted, and I couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunity.” 

Brighton was relied on right away, starting all 12 games of the fall campaign. It did not go as planned for the Commodores early, as they limped to a 1-3 start. But Abi wasn’t ready to let her freshman year go to waste. 

Trailing 1-0 to Florida with just 10 minutes to play, Brighton found Raegan Kelley, who one-timed the perfect pass into the open net, giving no chance for the Gator goalkeeper to make a stop. The freshman’s clutch assist led to an overtime goal from Myra Konte, giving new life to Vanderbilt’s season and Brighton the notion that she belongs on an SEC pitch. 

They were just the No. 7 seed, but the Commodores went into the SEC Tournament on a mission. Abi entered the first game against Mississippi State still looking for that elusive first goal. Just 16 minutes into the match, she got it, and pulled off as pretty of a first career goal as you’ll ever see. 

After her initial shot deflected off a defender, Brighton booted a missile first time to the top corner, increasing the Vanderbilt lead and setting the tone for what proved to be a week to remember for the Commodores. The next day, she fulfilled every young athlete’s dream, earning a spot in SportsCenter’s Top Plays. All of a sudden, this Vanderbilt team was rolling, and if it wasn’t for Brighton’s spark, who knows if they would still be playing deep into November.

“I didn’t know I had that shot in me,” she said. “Going to the SEC Tournament and scoring was very exciting. Everybody just wants the best for each other, and knowing that I was being supported really set the mood for our excitement.”

Photo courtesy Vanderbilt Athletics

The day was Sunday, Nov. 22. It was the weekend just before the country gave thanks in one of her most trying times ever. For one family on Hilton Head Island, it was also the culmination of more than a decade of daily grinds. 

The schedule couldn’t have worked out any better. James would play for the ACC title at 12, and then Abi would follow at 2 for the SEC crown. It already was a dream day for the family. But what followed in the next four hours would be something they’d never forget. 

James Brighton and the Tigers rolled through most of the conference in the regular season and were certainly among the favorites to capture the title. After a dominant 4-1 victory over Virginia Tech and a narrow one-goal triumph over Virginia, the top-ranked Pittsburgh Panthers entered as the final obstacle. 

Mohamed Seye put the Tigers up early, but a Valentin Noel strike just a minute into the second half snatched the wind out of the Tigers’ sail. James Brighton didn’t start this game, but he finished it as a hero. In the 71st minute, Grayson Barber delivered a brilliant ball right to the edge of the 6-yard box, and Brighton tucked it inside the far right post to head in the winning marker and give his Tigers the ACC championship.

Photo courtesy Clemson Athletics

Just as James delivered the heroics, his sister took over, as Dad went from streaming James on his phone to watching Abi live in Orange Beach, Alabama. With future national sensation and football placekicker Sarah Fuller in goal, it was Vanderbilt’s turn to take home a title. 

It couldn’t have started any worse for the Commodores, as Kayla McKeon gave the Arkansas Razorbacks the early lead just 46 seconds in. But a pair of goals in just four minutes suddenly gave Vandy the advantage. The two defenses tightened up, and it remained a one-goal advantage for the ‘Dores at the halfway stage. It was clear that the next goal would decide the fate of the match.

It takes guts to even fire a shot beyond the 18 in a game like this. But Abi knew that if she got a look at the goal, she wouldn’t hesitate to put it on net. In a near replication of her wonder-strike in game one, Brighton sizzled the ball off the crossbar and into the netting, providing the finishing blow to the Razorbacks and stunning everyone on the pitch. 

No one would have ever thought the boot that the ball came off was that of a freshman. She was as calm as could be, and delivered the final strike to give Vanderbilt an improbable championship, and cap off an afternoon of a lifetime for a pair of siblings that worked so hard to achieve this moment.

Photo courtesy Vanderbilt Athletics

Just three months ago, we were unsure if we would even see any college athletes take the field this fall. Now, a brother and sister who worked day in and day out, just like they had their entire careers, achieved something incredible. Although they were apart, they shared the same spirit of dedication, commitment, and excellence that they learned in the Lowcountry. 

It was like they were together, on the same field, rooting each other on at every touch of the ball. They were each other’s biggest fans. After James won his title, his entire team cheered on the Commodores on the bus ride home. And once Abi finished off an amazing championship run of her own, the best news she said she heard all day was of her brother doing the same. 

The heroes returned home, to celebrate their greatest Thanksgiving ever in a year like no other. 

Two championship games, two championship wins, two clinching goals. It wouldn’t have even been close to possible without two parents who inspired them from day one to pursue their dreams and work for the success that they aspired to reach.

“Both of them are extremely encouraging,” Abi said. “They know how hard we worked and how much time we put into the sport. I could not be more thankful for how they helped us grow as players.”

“Our parents are extremely supportive and proud of us for what we’ve been able to accomplish,” James added. “All of what we were able to do (championship) week was because of them. They made so many sacrifices to help us get to where we are today, and they’re by far our biggest fans. They’ve been the most supportive people in our lives, and we can’t thank them enough.” 

They’ve accomplished so much, but the work is far from over. It all starts up again this spring, and the stakes will be even higher. The brother and sister will now look for national domination, as they take to the NCAA tournament in April. 

Abi and James Brighton captured the pride of a family, a small barrier island, and the Lowco community. 

It took a decade to get here, yet they’re just getting started.

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