The contrast could not be starker.
The Lyons Township High School girls soccer team fielded the most experienced squad of Bill Lanspeary’s coaching career last spring.
This year’s group will be the most inexperienced.
The Lions return only three full-time starters from a team that went 19-4 and won a sectional championship before losing to Lincoln-Way North in a Class 3A supersectional.
“Last year we knew everything we had coming in,” said Lanspeary, now in his ninth year at the helm. “This year there is an awful lot of question marks. Not that they’re bad, but it’s question marks figuring things out and learning to play together. It will take a little time.”
The young Lions got off to a good start by holding perennial power Waubonsie Valley to a 0-0 tie in the season opener March 17 at Bennett Field. Waubonsie Valley, which finished third in the state last year, has seven Division I players (the Lions don’t have any) but couldn’t solve the LTHS defense despite dominating the action and enjoying a 14-2 edge in shots.
Senior goalie Lidia Breen made six saves and the back line led by juniors Izy Scott and Katie Hamor, senior Sheila Murphy and freshman Catherine Johnson held firm despite being ridiculously overworked.
“We had a really good performance defensively,” said Breen, one of the team’s few veteran players. “I don’t think I could have done it without the defense out there being as solid as they were.”
Breen, one of the co-captains along with senior forward Margaret Lynch, senior midfielder Kristen Janicki and senior manager Liza Gabrek, will shoulder much of the leadership role and got plenty of experience at it against the Warriors.
“I was yelling a lot,” Breen said. “We had Sheila and Catherine really try and stay back on their marks. We play a 4-3-3, which allows those outside defenders go up more, but we kind of held them back a little bit more today because they were sending so many people forward that it would have been just counterintuitive for our defenders to go forward and we would have been caught on the counters.”
The Lions didn’t get caught, but neither did they catch the Warriors napping. LTHS rarely had the ball in the midfield and never could mount a sustained attack.
“I think we’re happy with the tie,” Breen said. “I think we definitely felt like we could have scored a few goals at the end.
“We had some chances, so we’re not 100 percent happy with the tie, but going into this we didn’t really know what to expect and we were just hoping to get a gauge of where we were, and tying a team that is as good as Waubonsie is pretty good.”
The Lions did have one chance to steal a victory in the final minutes. Freshman forward Mary Devine dribbled to the left end line and rolled a cross intended for junior Grace Salvino, who was open in front. But Waubonsie’s Iowa-bound goalie Emma Rigby alertly dove to cut it off.
“Some of the stuff we did in counterattacks I thought was good and we were dangerous at times, but we need to start possessing the ball,” Lanspeary said. “Playing Waubonsie and with this many new players, we knew we would have to rely today on defense and counterattacks, but for the first game against that quality of an opponent, I’m pretty happy.”
The Lions’ offense figures to warm up with the weather as Lynch, Janicki and Salvino are experienced attackers and senior defender Kim Vitek, who will dive at Cornell, is a talented athlete.
“After watching today I definitely think we have the talent to go far in the postseason and succeed this entire season,” Breen said. “Last year what was so great was we had the talent but we also had this cohesiveness on the team because everybody was so mature and had been playing for so long.
“This year I think we’re going to be doing a lot of bonding off the field to try to get that sense of cohesiveness and team atmosphere back, because I think that translates onto the field a lot.”
Lanspeary said patience is needed.
“I’m still learning,” Lanspeary said. “We’re a work in progress. We’re trying to figure stuff out.
“We’ve got good players. It’s a matter of getting them to work well together and [the coaching staff] trying to figure out who helps us best where, try to utilize their strengths. But you can see it starting to jell a little bit more at each practice.”