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Foothill League girls soccer preview: There for the taking

Saugus is eyeing a third straight league title, but many teams aren’t far behind

Posted: January 8, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: January 8, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Saugus senior Serena Smith-Banas, left, is the favorite to win the Foothill League MVP this year because of her stellar defensive skills, according to the league’s coaches.

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Last season, the Saugus girls soccer team ran away with the Foothill League title, going 10-0 on its way to a second consecutive championship.

This season, Saugus looks like the team to beat once again, but no one in the league expects things to be as one-sided this time around.

Saugus returns a plethora of talent on both the defensive and attacking ends of the field. But across the valley, Hart enters league play with what head coach Mike Gomez thinks is among the best defenses he’s coached. West Ranch has gained
confidence with each game and is poised to challenge in its first season under head coach Jared White.

The bottom line is, the 2012 Foothill League girls soccer season is wide open, and it all begins with a bang on Tuesday, when Hart travels to West Ranch, Saugus will head to Canyon, and Valencia hosts a Golden Valley team still in search of its first league victory. Here’s a run down of what each team has to offer this season.

Saugus

It’s fitting that one of Saugus’ strengths this season is defense — as the Centurions are looking to defend their league title for the second season in a row.

In 2011, Saugus completed a run to its second straight title in grand fashion, sweeping its way through Foothill League play with a perfect 10-0 record.

While most teams start off the preseason with questions that must be answered along the backline, the Centurions return a stellar defensive side — and with their defense squared away, the Centurions have been able to focus on their offensive attack.

“It’s almost like you have a head start,” said Saugus head coach Natalie Helgeson.

Returning from that squad are Serena Smith-Banas, widely regarded by Foothill League coaches as the league’s top player entering the season, goalkeeper Madi Hebert, forward/midfielder Stacey Atwater, midfielder/defenseman Angie Weiner, as well as Lizzie Rivas and Monica Allen.

“It definitely sends us in the right direction, having that leadership defensively is why we’ve had so many shutouts this season,” said Helgeson of the Centurions 11 shutouts in 15 games.

Coupled with defensive newcomers Alex Pico and Nicolette Cascione, the Centurions have shown no signs of slowing down during their preleague schedule.

And the scary part for fellow league teams?

The Centurions offense is just as strong.

Atwater leads the team with 14 goals, and Weiner isn’t far behind with 11.

Saugus enters its Foothill League opener on Tuesday against Canyon with a 12-2-1 record, which including a 1-0 victory over Flintridge Sacred Heart — ranked No. 16 nationally at the time by the ESPNHS website’s Fab 50.

The Centurions followed up that performance by hanging with No. 10 Corona Del Mar before falling 1-0 — two results that propelled them to No. 39 in the rankings.

“Coming up with that win against Flintridge was huge for our confidence,” Helgeson said.

Needless to say, Saugus seems ready to compete despite a target squarely on its back.

Hart

The Indians have had no shortage of opportunities during the preleague season — the problem at times though, has been putting the ball in the back of the net.

Hart enters Foothill League play with a record of 6-1-4 — and is fresh off a championship run at its own Hart Showcase with a 3-0 victory over Quartz Hill on Dec. 28.

The difference with the Indians now, according to Gomez, is the girls are finally starting to play as a team.

“I think it took us all the way up until prior to the Hart tournament to start playing like a team,” he said. “They’re beginning to read the field, beginning to read one another and anticipate what one is going to be doing. Their character has really grown. They’re very strong, very united.”

Leading the Indians into the league season are returning defenders Hailey Jenkins and Kelsey Steck, returning forward Destinney Duron and returning midfielders Presley Lambert, Allie Leon and third-year varsity midfielder junior Allyssa Perez.

Added to the mix this season are newcomers sophomore Georgie Nielsen, freshman Jenny Chavas.

The Indians will rely on that core of players to help lead them to a league title, something that has eluded Hart since 2007.

The Indians won’t have to wait long to see where they stand in this year’s Foothill League — they open up with West Ranch on Jan. 10 before facing Saugus for the first time on Jan. 13.

Valencia


Megan Berkery and Lindsay Bos return to the Vikings this season as Valencia looks to prove that its 5-6-1 record is less than indicative of the talent level the Vikings put on the pitch.

Valencia played a brutal preleague schedule, squaring off with teams such as Chaminade, Westlake, Santiago, Santa Paula, Upland, Etiwanda, Buena and Harvard-Westlake.

“It’s vital, I always have some people say ‘You can play too hard of a schedule.’ I don’t see how padding my schedule with teams I can wipe out is going to help me,” said Valencia head coach Sean O’Connell. “We played 13 pre(league) games and 12 of those teams were CIF playoff teams from last year and two CIF champions, five league winners. It was a great pre(league) season.”

Despite losing 12 seniors off last season’s team, the Vikings have the talent to compete with Saugus, Hart and West Ranch in Foothill League play — the question will be, can the team play with the kind of consistency required to compete at the top?

“We told the girls it’s anywhere from first to fourth,” O’Connell said. “It’s how you play those games. You could be the best fourth place team to ever come out of league.”

Canyon


Canyon enters the season as a giant question mark — with young talent all over the field.

If that youth comes together quickly, the Cowboys could make a run at an automatic playoff spot. But if Canyon makes youthful mistakes along the way, it could find itself near the bottom of the standings.

Midfielders Kaila Sargema and Sarah Cipperley will provide leadership as talented returners for the Canyon squad.

A team anchored by its defense, the play of newcomer freshman goalkeeper Megan Kennedy will be key for the Cowboys as they will likely be forced to win low-scoring games this season.

“She’s come in and been solid,” said Canyon head coach Andy Pringle. “She’s going to continue to start for us in league season. She’ll be huge for us this season.”

The question will be how Canyon is going to score goals.

And if they answer that question, the Cowboys could accomplish their goal of a top three finish.

“(We can accomplish that by) keeping the defensive end of the game and also figuring out a way to score goals and turn some ties into wins,” Pringle said. “We’ve been close but we haven’t been able to get over that hump.”

West Ranch

The Wildcats may be entering Foothill League play with new leadership in first-year head coach Jared White — but that doesn’t mean anyone in the league thinks West Ranch is in rebuilding mode.

West Ranch has become a trendy pick among league coaches to disrupt things at the top, as the Wildcats have played strong in the preleague season, highlighted by a win in penalties over then-No. 16 ESPNHS-ranked Flintridge Sacred Heart of La Canada.

The win propelled the Wildcats — who stand at 8-1-1 — to No. 40 in the rankings, which include high school teams from Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and Texas.

“We flew under the radar up until this past week when we beat some good teams and highly ranked teams,” White said. “I think it’s a really good place to be. You never want to be that team that people look at the schedule and they think we have a good chance to win this. But you also don’t want to come in with such high expectations that it’s hard to live up to.”

The Wildcats will rely on returning captains Kendall Moskal and Kylee MacArthur, and offensive stars Valerie Mercado and Hailey Reynolds.

New to the fold but expected to make an impact on the pitch is Taylor Ayers, who was pulled up late last year from junior varsity as is ready for her first full season at the varsity level.

And while the Wildcats would love to upset their way to the top of the league standings, their goal is simple: make the playoffs for the first time in program history.

“West Ranch has never made playoffs before,” White said. “So when we first picked teams, we sat down and said, ‘Let’s lay out some goals.’ With league, it came down to, ‘Let’s get into the playoffs, let’s solidify the third seed and start off in the right direction.’ We thought setting (a goal) of winning league would put too much pressure, but since we’ve had so much success, it hasn’t changed, but we have our eyes set on the highest prize.”

Golden Valley

Golden Valley may not be vying for a Foothill League title this season, but the team is primed to make history on the Canyon Country campus.

The Grizzlies have never won a game in league play. But under first-year head coach Charles Martinez, opposing coaches around the league believe this is the year Golden Valley finally turns the corner.

Golden Valley sits at 5-5-1 entering the league season, and has given up an average of just 1.1 goals per game.

And the Grizzlies are peaking at just the right time, coming off a first-place finish in Flight 2 of the Hart Soccer Showcase with a 2-1 victory over Pete Knight on Dec. 29.

Running the show for the Grizzlies this season are top returners Lauren Bermudez, Joanna Lagunas and Samantha Jennings.

“(Jennings) is one of our key players,” he said. “She’s going to be one of the best players in the league too. She has a lot of talent and is a good skill player. I think she’s going to make a big impact.

Bermudez will quarterback the Grizzlies’ defense.

“She brings a lot of experience,” Martinez said. “She’s one of the captains and a good leader. She has a big responsibility on her shoulders. We have a team that we can move on far this year and I think her experience brings a really good confidence to the whole team.”

Golden Valley has the athletes to end their time at the bottom of the standings — if they continue to improve as the season wears on, the Grizzlies could be poised to shake up the league standings.

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