As the scholastic soccer season prepares to get underway, every coach faces new challenges, but Hollidaysburg girls' soccer coach, Dave Soellner, may face the most unenviable task of any coach in the region, maybe even the state.
For the past four seasons, Soellner has had the firepower of five of the top players in the state in Mackenzie Walter, Taylor Vladic, Taylor Wolf, Sara Cobler and Jamie McConnell. With their graduation and departure into the college ranks, half of his incredibly dominant field players are gone.
Hollidaysburg has some very nice young talent in its ranks and some experienced lettermen returning, but the fab five which took him to three district finals and a district championship won't be among this year's ranks. These girls had played together since the age of 7 in the travel ranks, advanced to the indoor national championship semifinals, dominated Division 1 level play in Pittsburgh and PAWest State Cup play together and were a different breed.
Many of the teams routinely pounded in the past four years by the Golden Tigers are laying in wait for this year's matchup, and going toe to toe with perennial District 6 powerhouse State College will be far more difficult this year.
One of those teams awaiting its shot at Hollidaysburg will definitely be Altoona, which will feature an experienced and stingy defense, and two of the best goalies in the area in Didi Rizzo and Lexi Mirenda. Rizzo has been amazing in goal, and her backup, Mirenda, a sophomore, could start in goal for almost any other school.
Upperclassmen like Kelsey Swanger could anchor a very tough defense or even push up into the midfield. The Lions will dominate many games at the midfield as they did last year, but coach Jim John admitted that they still may struggle up top trying to finish and put goals on the scoreboard. They lost many close games last season and need someone to emerge as a finisher at striker, who can put the ball in the back of the net.
The Altoona boys, led by longtime coach Dave Alexander, should be a solid team this year with an influx of some very talented young freshmen coming on board. The Lions should hold their own against anybody, but their schedule is stiff, and regular archrivals like Hollidaysburg, led by coach Craig Shale, and district powerhouse State College will make advancing in the playoffs very difficult for the Lions.
The Bishop Guilfoyle Maurader girls' and boys' squads face some tough challenges this year with having lost both coaches in Bill James and Cheryl Monthony. Additionaly, the girls, who struggled last year, didn't play together in any spring leagues and lost virtual scoring machine Morgan Berger to graduation.
The BG?girls, though, will within the next couple of years have an influx of young talent from girls coming in from PAWest travel teams, which will provide a huge boost for the Lady Marauders.
The boys' team had played some very close games against league opponents last season, but the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference, which is always extremely competitive, is especially strong this year, and garnering enough victories to move into the playoffs may be difficult.
Additionally, the smaller enrollment at BG makes it especially difficult for fall sports as a limited number of student athletes are split among volleyball, tennis, cross country, golf and soccer.
The onset of play this year brings about many interesting matchups early on, and success as the season progresses, with so many teams closely matched, may come down to depth on the rosters as injuries always play a key role in the success of the squads. Those without JV squads or larger rosters may be hurting by mid-season. With some teams beginning play before the end of August and some interesting high school tournaments to start things off, this should prove to be a great scholastic year for soccer fans.
Schmitt's area soccer column runs monthly during the season.