It’s a spring of girls’ soccer intrigue in the area and what better place to start than with the Leavenworth Pioneers’ program?
With a young program that continues to rise in win totals and self-respect, third-year head coach Derek Wilson may have a team in place that is just where it wants to be as it expects to turn a corner in 2018.
Last year, they improved to three wins, finishing 3-13 overall and 1-10 in Sunflower League play, but it was a much more competitive ledger with mostly freshmen and sophomores lining the main rotation of players.
The improvement was obvious following Wilson’s two-win introduction to the soccer scene in Leavenworth County.
“I am the only one now who played on the team in their freshman year and it didn’t seem like our program was built up like it is now and I am really happy with how it turned out,” senior Maggie Weber said. “Coach Wilson has done a great job of building up our program and he has been teaching us the fundamentals and the way soccer is really played. The last two years our sophomore and our freshmen classes are great and talented.
“We were tired of losing so much that we wanted to do something to make a difference and start winning more games and make the program better. We were really sick of not striving.”
Now, they appear ready to take the next step as girls now have age and experience.
“We have a lot of newcomers this year,” Wilson said. “Based on preseason conditioning, I know I have a committed and hard-working group. We will be the deepest we have been since I have been here, we are still not a deep team when it comes to our league.”
Deep or not, Wilson’s well runs deeper with junior Liz LaDuron starting in goal for a third year. She should be expected to once again make some good saves, while classmate Alexis Cole gives the Pioneers speed, strength, skill and knowledge, according to Wilson, to compete in the daunting Sunflower League.
The influx of competitive youth has only helped push the program’s competitiveness from young to old and added to the team’s edge.
“A lot of the younger class coming up, they definitely have more of a work ethic than what we’ve seen in the past,” Cole said. “They are here because they want to play. My freshman year we had some people out here for the dumbest reasons. They wanted to get out of school early (for instance). That was very frustrating for me. I am here because I love the sport and want to play soccer. I am definitely grateful that we have people coming in that do want to play and love the game. They are going to do what they can to make the team better as a whole.
“(Practice) is different, when in the past a lot of girls were messing around, but now the girls are here because they want to be. We’re going hard in practice and actually being competitive. (In previous years), I was frustrated because I felt like I was getting worse. Now, I feel I can progress with high school soccer, because the program is getting better and I am being pushed. Work ethic is where it’s at, it gets you anywhere. If you do your best, that’s all you can ask for.”
Throw in sophomore Kaylee Shaw, who may be a smaller player but has a high level of toughness, the team’s competitiveness continues to become a key factor.
“I expect her to take a big step forward this year,” Wilson said. “Maggie is one of our few seniors who I also expect to make a big improvement this year. She’s a great wing player with endurance who can step into the middle while Kaylee and Alexis catch their breath.”
In 2017, the team had potential to win more games, but were sometimes caught in the moment of being that team that was and the team that could be.
“The Shawnee Heights game we played phenomenal (in a 1-0 loss) and we gave it our all that game,” Weber said. “I think we felt we would play like that the rest of the season. We almost got there, but we never got there again. We are practicing (playing fast) and I think we will be consistently playing our best game every single time instead of once or twice.”
They do lose Faith Knoedler, who departed after a phenomenally intriguing freshman season, when her family moved and Celeste Marchbanks’ anchor in the back that graduated and moved on to collegiate soccer.
“My goal is double our wins from last year and finish at least 6-10 and put us in position to win a regional game,” Wilson said. “I also expect zero mercies this year even against the likes of Olathe East, Olathe Northwest and Shawnee Mission East.”
So if all factors needing to fall into place for winning do so?
“We are progressing every day, we are getting better every day, we are going harder,” Cole said. “I think we can win a lot more games than we have in the past.”
As far as Monday’s home and season opener against Lansing?
“I think it’s going to be a better game,” Cole said. “Everyone will see a better game and a better team this year.”
There was some uncertainty heading into the new campaign about what this year’s Lions would look like.
A perennially good program, they would see the departure of junior Syndi Bolewski to Bonner Springs and club-only soccer after putting herself on pace for becoming one of the greatest goal scorers in Kansas history and then the loss of senior Georgia Watkins and a knee injury that led to more complications and knocking her out of the 2018 campaign.
Then came head coach Ryan Yedlinsky.
Yedlinsky takes over for Adam Cogswell, who resigned during the boys’ season, and the lightbulb went on as the Lions’ players return with some verve and increased vigor.
They will need to after falling to 8-9 last year, including a season-ending six-match losing streak and early exit in regionals.
Now, with juniors like top-flight goalkeeper Brynne Qualley, defender Kennedy Farris, and speedster April Jackson and captains Maddy Fay and Reagan Bullock, Yedlinsky has a great place to start his first campaign coaching the Lions.
“We have lots of strengths and a wide range of talent across all ages,” Yedlinsky said. “The overarching talent is ball control and patience, which lends itself greatly to possession soccer. We work daily on finding opportunities to exploit our opponents' weaknesses to create scoring opportunities. The other biggest strength is the team's resilience. I have deliberately challenged them with an aggressive conditioning program over the past month and they have mightily risen to the challenge. I truly can't wait to see them in a real match.”
The way last season ended and all that came with it still burns the current Lions as they prepare to bounce back.
“We kind of fell apart at the end, we were tired and exhausted when it came down to muscle strength and conditioning, but I feel like this year, with the new coach, that we know what we are up for this year and how to prepare for the new season and be better than last year,” Alyssa Foley said. “We are all more ticked and ready to fight for that state championship because (last year) gives us the drive to push harder.
“(Last year) it was really depressing honestly, because it didn’t go as planned and we didn’t even make it past regionals, which was upsetting.”
“It was super frustrating, especially toward the end when we only had one sub and most of us were playing a whole game – we just wanted to go, go, go and we just couldn’t,” Morgan Verhaeg said. “We started so strong and to just end like that was super frustrating. It’s given us a purpose this year.”
Verhaeg spoke about the efforts made in the offseason to get players back into the groove and that when practices started, the intensity was “hard” right off the bat.”
“It was kind of embarrassing to end like that (last season) and we are going to use that to drive us, but we’re not going to dwell on it,” Verhaeg said. “We are going to start the season out strong and go for it.”
Foley addressed the losses of some key players that could have helped this year and “respects what they gave to us,” but believes that the new players will provide for the Lions.
“I appreciate how hard they work, want to be part of us and want to be state champions,” Foley said. “Now that it’s not as much a 1-on-1 team on who to pass it to, I feel we can all take the opportunity to get shots in. It won’t be as much of an individual possession game and more of a team game.”
The loss of Watkins is tragic for the young lady and also does hurt the Lions in terms of not having her huge presence on the soccer pitch.
“She has been a tremendous help getting the girls ready for this coming season and I look forward to her career in college at Shepard University,” Yedlinsky said of Watkins. “It's great to still have her as part of the team though she won't play because she is recovering from a torn ACL.
“Every team has weaknesses and we work on those extremely hard every practice session.”
With a number of players back from a season lost in 2017 due to a number of injuries as the season progressed and other issues, the Lions seem ready to get things back to winning.
“Our goal every year is a championship on some level – regional and above,” Yedlinsky said. “I honestly don't see why that should ever be off the table. The talent we have on this team is worthy of that. We just need to bring it all together.
“As far as the future goes, I am ecstatic. We have so much talent at all ages, that we will be able to continue to grow as a program for years to come.”
Despite the tough 2017 ending, the team is undeterred and appears ready to make a statement once again.
“I feel we have a good chance of winning state this year or at least getting through the first game of regionals,” Verhaeg said. “Our team has evened out and we are all up at the top and with these new freshmen that have strong shots and can take it from outside the box – which is an area we have struggled with before – and with us working this possession style of game, if we can work it up, I think we have a really good chance of going far.
“We are focusing on the possession and once we get it up there, we will be good. We can run (other teams) around with just passing.”
Austin Knipp moves into the head girls’ soccer post at Basehor-Linwood, replacing Erik Jones after the latter had brought the Bobcats to a respectable level of soccer.
Now, Knipp hopes to take things up another notch.
Following an 8-8-1 season that saw the Bobcats’ campaign derailed by the late-season loss of uber-scorer Berkley Sharp and not helped by losing midfielder Carly Gore before the season due to a knee injury, the team learned a lot about itself and what it is capable of as it moves forward.
Knipp has plenty to work with including Gore who returns to the fold after surgery, rehab and basketball season and Sammy Lee, who the coach calls “our foundation in the back that’ll bring senior leadership, experience and the work ethic that the team will be able to feed off of.”
Throw in some young talent coming in and the Bobcats could be a tough out if they can replace Sharp’s golden boot.
“It's too early to know what our exact strengths are but we do have a great core of girls that play club who have the knowledge and instincts that we want to see in our players,” Knipp aid. “The weaknesses we've seen so far is having a handful of girls that are playing for the first time which will take some time learning the knowledge of the game, fundamentals and reaction during training.
“They're all very coachable which will be key in their learning process and taking it day by day with drills and not allowing themselves to run from the challenges we'll bring, but rather run at them.”
Gore returns with a lot of enthusiasm and positive feelings moving forward after sitting all last year and having to watch her teammates battle every day.
“I am super excited for the season because everyone seems to be getting better as the (preseason) goes on,” Gore said. “I’ve only been out here two weeks and everyone has improved so much and hopefully we do more throughout the season.
“Last year we played really hard, so we need to keep that up every single game. Obviously, we lost Berkley, so we are going to need to score, work on scoring, getting it forward and getting it into the goal.”
Lee knows that scoring will be an issue at first and the team struggled to get the ball into the onion bag once Sharp went down, forcing some players to have to step up immediately and that may have an added benefit in 2018.
“I think the whole team is on the same page and wants to get the ball in the back of the net and have a winning season,” Lee said. “It really brought the reality of the fact that (Sharp) isn’t going to be here this year and we have to work a lot harder without her, because she was obviously our goal scorer. We will have to find someone to do it or work harder as a team to get the ball into the back of the net.
“A lot of girls were coming up to the field and shooting in the offseason and we never had that happen before, so I am excited to see what that did for us.”
Lee is also encouraged by the return of Gore.
“I’m really excited and it will help because she was always the one to connect the defense to the offense and last year we didn’t have anyone,” Lee said. “I had to move up to the middle last year. It will help us (having Gore) getting the ball into the back of the net.”
The Bobcats, known for their competitiveness, scrap and 80 minutes of fight, believe that that type of determination can carry them forward more this season.
“The scrappiness we have as a team will help us get to the back of the net and start scoring goals,” sophomore Taylor Theno said. “I feel we are going to need to have more intensity in the game attacking people. We have really good potential to go far in postseason, at least in regionals, and see how it goes from there. I definitely feel we can go further than we have in the past.”
Knipp sees his team in a pragmatic light and yet also believes anything is possible.
“Our goals for this season is to get the mindset and culture changed with the girls program,” he said. “We've never had a season where we've been over .500 and we're looking to change that this year. This all starts with the attitude and mindset that the girls have and to build the foundation for years to come, we need to start changing that now. We have a great group of girls so far and I'm more than confident they will set the attitude for years to come.”
“Everyone is very motivated this year and everyone wants to work hard. I’ve seen it every practice,” Gore said. “In the past, this has just been for fun – not last year, but years before – and we have slowly built up where everyone wants to be here and wants to win this year.”