With 15 regional championships in the past 17 years, the Lyons Township High School girls soccer program is firmly established as a perennial power.
But this year’s team is the most experienced Lions coach Bill Lanspeary has ever had.
Nine starters return from a team that went 16-5-2 and reached the Class 3A sectional finals. Most of them are seniors.
“It should be [a strong year] with all the experience coming back,” Lanspeary said. “I really like the new pieces we’ve added. They seem to be meshing in well with the others, but they also give us an element we didn’t have last year with speed and strength.”
Of the Lions’ losses last year, two were to archrival Hinsdale Central, which knocked LTHS out of the playoffs for the second straight year with a 3-1 win in the sectional final and went on to finish second in the state. Another was to Naperville North, which won its second straight state title.
LTHS and Hinsdale Central are again the main contenders for the West Suburban Conference Silver Division crown and will meet on May 8 in La Grange. Expect the Lions to be out for revenge.
“After the last couple years, they’re tired of getting knocked out [by Hinsdale Central], so that’s definitely a big goal,” Lanspeary said.
The Lions certainly have the talent to win the conference and their first sectional title since 2010, with versatile and experienced players all over the field.
The defense is especially strong with four returning senior starters in CC Holbert, Sarah Drew, Catherine King and Grace Nasenbenny. They will be a formidable wall in front of junior goalie Lidia Breen, back for her second year as a starter.
“I think our defense, returning all four starters, is a strength,” Lanspeary said. “And I think our attack is going to be pretty dangerous. There’s a lot of confidence and familiarity, too.”
The Lions plan to attack aggressively using a 4-3-3 formation. The midfield is comprised of two-way players in junior Liza Gabrek, senior Emily Lange and junior Lindsay Allen. Lange, a Cincinnati recruit, was a forward last year while Gabrek has also played defense in the past. Allen replaces All-Stater Ari Kowalski, now at Indiana.
Cornell-bound senior Erin Fitzgerald, who led the team in scoring last year, headlines a forward line that also includes sophomore Grace Salvino and senior Katie Dougherty, the top newcomer.
“I think she’s going to add a lot to our attack,” Lanspeary said of Dougherty. “She brings speed, goal-scoring ability, she’s really coachable and she works hard.”
With so many seniors, the Lions do not lack for leadership. They have five co-captains in Holbert, Nasenbenny, King, Lange and Fitzgerald. Holbert and Nasenbenny are four-year varsity players whose older sisters were LT captains, while the other three earned all-conference honors last year.
“All five have been here for a while and are very talented players,” Lanspeary said. “They’re also high-character kids and they just seem to be natural leaders.”
Fitzgerald and Lange are proven scorers who will move seamlessly between the midfield and the forward line, while the powerful King is another dangerous weapon thanks to her booming free kicks.
King scored on a free kick and Lange converted a corner kick as the Lions opened the season with an impressive 2-1 victory over state power Waubonsie Valley on March 19. Waubonsie was ranked No. 8 in the nation by StudentSports.com.
The Lions also return a number of reserves, including senior goalie Molly Henderson, junior midfielders Margaret Lynch, Kristen Janicki and Gabbie Gresge, junior forward Tina Cevizovic and sophomore defender Isabelle Scott.
LTHS also has four sophomore newcomers in goalie Emily Johnson, defender Sheila Murphy, midfielder Bridget Kirby and forward Gabby Hart.
“I don’t think there’s a glaring weakness,” Lanspeary said. “But after the Waubonsie game there’s still plenty to work on.”