Patriot Potential: Close-Knit Squad Prepares for Playoffs
Back in the chill of February, when Pinecrest girls’ soccer coach Ray Blatz was selecting his 2012 varsity squad, he probably would have described his players in three words: competitive, unsure, potential.
His hope was that this fun-loving and eclectic collection of five seniors and 15 underclassmen, with their exuberant passion for soccer and a shared desire to play long into May’s state playoff schedule, would be a contender for a state 4-A title.
According to Blatz, they trained hard to increase the level of fitness and quality for extended periods of time. The tough sessions hopefully would help them with the technical and tactical aspects during all levels of competition. This was a team blessed with speed and talent, but the players had to catch their breath in the first two weeks of the schedule after tough draws against perennial Triangle powers Cardinal Gibbons (1-1) and Leesville Road (0-0).
Offensive leaders and close friends Antonia Meyers and Kristen Phelps started to click, along with mid-fielders and team captains Keegan Cary and Ally Parziale. The girls listened as Blatz prompted them during each contest to play quickly and possess the ball.
“Our plan is to sustain the high work rate and pace with simple ball movement,” Blatz said, “and that helps them achieve their potential.”
That achievement has led to another undefeated Southeastern Conference regular-season championship, and with a 7-0 victory over Lumberton on Thursday night, they collected the school’s 15th consecutive conference tournament title. Going into the playoffs, the team is 17-1-2. They are riding a terrific 10-game winning streak, including an enviable average of more than six goals per game.
“The strength of this team is their desire,” observed Blatz, who took over as head coach following several years leading the junior varsity team. He is assisted by Todd Abbey and Evan Saleeby.
“The talk among the girls since the first scrimmage has been ‘state championship.’ Keegan and Ally have organized our midfield and established our pace of play,” he said, “and the presence and the personality of our team come from (leading scorers) Antonia and Kristen.
“Their work rate is infectious and when we need a goal, they figure out a way to create one.”
And then, there is the defense. A defense so stingy, so proud and so together that, 20 games into the season, they have allowed only three goals.
Sophomore Abbey Crider took over as starting goalkeeper in the last weeks of her freshman season. She, along with teammate Kathryn Palmer, plays for a Triangle area club team, and is a seasoned veteran in only her second year as a varsity player.
The back three for the Patriots are senior Heather Brock, junior Jazz Jones and sophomore Mackenzie Reed. They are fast, determined, very protective of their goalkeeper, and are three student-athletes/close friends united as one tough defensive unit.
“They trust me,” said Crider, “and they listen to me when I direct them, which is extremely helpful when the opposing team has a strong offense.”
Certainly Blatz considers himself fortunate to have the majority of this experienced group coming back next year, and he also knows what he has there now.
“The defense has been outstanding all season,” the coach said, “and Jazz’s decision-making and leadership have improved throughout each game. They have only allowed two goals in the flow of play and one goal off a corner kick.
“These girls expect us to continue this high standard for the remainder of our matches.”
Brock, the senior defender, is really big on teamwork and sticking together.
“It’s really helpful to have someone like Jazz to step up as center back, because she doesn’t panic,” Brock said. “She keeps her composure very well and keeps us all together. If she steps out, then Mackenzie and I have to take her spot. It really is all about playing together and covering each other.”
Crider and Reed have played together for eight years, and there is a level of comfort and trust between the four defenders that is like a sisterhood.
The role of the defense and the way they protect Crider isn’t lost on the rest of the team.
Phelps, who earned a hat trick on Thursday against Lumberton, will be the first to tell you that all of their plays come out of the back.
“It is a full-team progression when we counterattack or when we’re building a play with possession of the ball,” she explained. “The way the defense is consistent back there makes us know we can rely on them no matter what.
“I don’t even start to sweat because I know who we have back there, and I know that they all step up and play their positions.”
Blatz expects to have most of his team healthy for the first playoff game against a yet-unknown opponent from the Greater Neuse River Conference from the Raleigh area. But losing junior Haley Robinson with a knee injury in the Terry Sanford game was tough.
“Haley is our first central midfielder off the bench, and that is huge loss for the squad,” Blatz said. “She brings a calming effect to the game for us.”
He has been pleased with the growth of junior Megan Thomas in midfield and how Brock has improved with each game. Knowing how Cary and Phelps have raised their level of play thus far against top-flight opponents makes him smile.
Blatz, who is employed by the Moore County school system as an occupational therapist, has enjoyed watching the seniors go from timid freshman trying to please and “fit in” into leaders and young adults guiding the younger players on and off the field.
“They have so much compassion for one another and for their teammates,” he observed.
The closeness of the team even extends to the two managers, senior J.T. Stilwell, who has been with the girls for three years, and sophomore Michael Phelps, a member of the Patriot boys’ soccer team and the brother of Kristen.
Reality immediately kicks in for 20 girls, ranked as the sixth best team in 4-A high schools, and three coaches who have the common goal of stretching their season for several more weeks.
Now in the warmth of May, Blatz would certainly keep “competitive” as the word to describe his close-knit team, but would likely add “camaraderie” and “excited” as the Patriots strive to reach their ultimate goal.
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