Defending champs rebuild for 3A test
Whittell High School’s girls soccer coach Mike Leeper likes his team’s swagger.
“They’re the hardest-working bunch I’ve ever had,” the fifth-year coach said. “They have a lot of team spirit and a lot of team unity, which is something you just can’t coach.”
Coming into this year’s campaign as the reigning division 2A state champions, it’s easy to see why this team’s character is so dialed in.
But with last season’s success comes a return to division 3A where that character Leeper likes will be tested game in and game out.
“Everyone is going to be after us since we won state last year,” junior midfielder Heather O’Brien said. “We just have to keep practicing hard and stay together as a team and we will be fine.”
The team returns nine varsity players, five of which were major contributors in the state title run. They definitely have their work cut out for them due to major losses from graduation.
Gone is league MVP and first team all-state midfielder Caitlin Fagan, whose playmaking and gritty determination on the pitch will surely be missed.
Also missing this year is the impressive defensive duo of Lindsey Schultz and Alisha Roth who anchored the back line last year en route to earning first team all-state honors.
“We definitely have some big voids to fill,” Leeper said. “It’s going to be a rebuilding process and it sometimes it takes a little while for a team to find themselves during that process, but the girls are really working hard.”
Back to lead the way up front are juniors Jackie Laurian and Jenna Hayes, both of whom will be expected to handle the bulk of scoring.
O’Brien, who will take over the playmaking duties wielded by Fagan last year, is an all-league returnee that should pick up right where Fagan left off.
The Warriors also return starting keeper Elise Thomas, a virtual brick wall last year.
“We are very fortunate to have a great keeper like Elise. If she stays strong mentally and physically, there’s no telling how good we can be,” Leeper said.
Other varsity starters expected to log a lot of minutes include Brooke Schussel, Hayley Shaw and Sara Piccola.
While Leeper will lean on his varsity players to navigate the ship, he is also excited about the crop of young talent that will join the roster this year.
One of them, freshman Katlin Green, will be a starter in the midfield.
“She’s a very strong and physical girl,” Leeper said.
Moving back up to 3A, the Warriors will face stiff competition from the likes of North Tahoe, Truckee, Manogue and arch rival Incline. Leeper is excited about the challenge, but realizes the road to state will be that much more difficult.
“The north (division) is easily the most dominant, so just getting out of league will be the hardest.”
Laurian echoed her coaches take on the move to 3A.
“Coming off state championship last year, it’s going to be pretty hard to match that (another title) moving up to 3A, but I think having a young team we just have to stay aggressive and give them good competition.”
Competition begins at home against Virgin Valley on Saturday, and while he admits the team is rebuilding this year, it’s obvious Leeper believes this team has what it takes.
“I’m excited,” he said. “The biggest challenge as a team is to fight and make the playoffs. A lot of things have to happen. We have to stay together as a unit and we have to stay injury free, but the character of this team is definitely there to make a nice run.”
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