BARRE — Five members of Spaulding’s state championship ice hockey team will carry their mojo into Tuesday’s season-opening girls soccer match.
Vergennes will travel to play the Crimson Tide for a 6 p.m. Senior Night clash, with athletes returning to competitive high school action for the first time since the winter season. Emily Wilson, Addie Riel, Rebecca McKelvey, Emily Morris and Molly Parker capped a 22-0 hockey season with a Division II title, giving their school its first championship of any kind in a decade.
Nearly six months have passed since any Tide athlete suited up for a varsity game, so Tuesday’s opener will feature a mix of anticipation and anxiety. Coach Rob Moran is still tinkering with a few positions and he knows that players from both teams could be a little rusty after the lengthy break.
Moran took over for longtime coach Peter Sakash last year and his team finished 4-10. The season had its ups and downs, but the Tide’s potential was impossible to ignore during a 6-0 victory over 16-time champ Milton.
Moran is a 1994 Spaulding graduate and coached the Tide boys for 14 years. As a high-schooler he witnessed the rise of the girls program, which went on to win a Division I crown in 2001. The Spaulding girls also advanced to the semifinals in 2002 and 2007.
The Tide have not recorded a winning season or a playoff victory since 2012, but that could easily change this fall. Moran returns six seniors, plus three sophomores with varsity experience.
Wilson, Riel, Madeline Benoit, Halle Pletzer, Katelyn MacIver and Natalie Taylor are back as seniors. Classmate Chesnee Barney will help with the team as she recovers from an injury. Sabrina Metcalf and Raven Premont add depth to the senior class, while Chloe Mattson leads the juniors. Payton Lamberti, Julia Fewer and Morris round out the junior group.
Sophomore Lilly LaCroix was called up from JV before the start of the 2019 season and became the starting goalie without much notice. She kept her team competitive during some lopsided matches and will be one of the most experienced underclassmen in 2020. Paige Allen and Ava Guarriello also made varsity as freshmen, while fellow sophomore Sage MacAuley was a high-scoring JV player. They are joined this season by classmates Madison Ashford, Francesca Barney, Parker and McKelvey.
Spaulding will compete in the Lake Division, playing home-and-away matches against Rice, Middlebury and Vergennes. The Tide will also visit Milton and Mount Abraham.
Moran answered a handful of questions about the season after it was announced Tuesday that varsity games will start in a few days:
TA: It’s your second year coaching the girls after you coached the boys for a long time. Have there been any big surprises or changes this season?
Moran: “The biggest change that I made with our setup is we play more of a traditional, compact style in the midfield. We play with a holding midfielder and then two attacking midfielders. So instead of playing straighter across the field, we play more compact. And the reason we do it that way is this year we’re hoping to get our outside backs to be more involved in the attack. And the toughest part is getting defenders to get out of that mindset of just being defenders. In this area, outside backs are typically trained to stay back and not be involved in the attack. So it’s breaking those habits and getting them to understand that they’re actually an important part of the attack and keeping the ball in the offensive third of the field. Right now, that’s been our toughest thing as we move along. The three midfielders I have right now, they played with us last year and they kind of understand the concept. It is still new to them because they hadn’t played this way before, until last year. So it’s a concept that we’re still teaching and we’re still trying to get them conditioned to.”
TA: Are you feeling pretty confident with the strong group of returners?
Moran: “Halle Pletzer is a good senior leader in the middle of the field. And Chloe Mattson was named one of the captains as a junior and she’s playing in the middle of the field as well. So we have some strong players in the middle. And defensively I’ve got some really smart girls. Kate MacIver played in that position last year and she’s getting smarter every day and she’s learning that position. And Maddie Benoit, in the center of the back, she’s really strong, quick and aggressive. Emily Wilson is the lone senior up top and she’s surrounded by some younger players. Paige, Sage and Ava are all sophomores. All four of my options up top are fantastic athletes. They’re really fast and really strong.”
TA: So you’re looking at having Emily, Ava, Sage and Paige all split time up top, depending if you’re running two or three strikers?
Moran: “Most likely we’re going to stick with three because I don’t want to change the formation. We’ve put a year into it and we’re starting to really pick it up now. And it’s something I want to build. With Ava, Sage and Page, I’ve got three years of teaching these girls how to play this. And as sophomores, they’re a strong trio. And with Emily’s leadership up top, I’m hoping that we’re going to be able play with the ball this year and score more goals.”
TA: Who would be the other midfielders along with Halle and Chloe?
Moran: “It’s not sold yet. Natalie has been doing really well as a holding midfielder. Raven came in as a forward, but we’ve been working with her more as a midfielder. And Addie can play midfield and she can go in to the defense. Right now, I’m glad we have another week because I’m still not sure on a couple spots yet.”
TA: You had nine seniors last year. And for the boys side, you’ve had those big senior crews before. What are some of the challenges to replacing that senior group?
Moran: “Because I was new last year, I don’t think losing the nine seniors is going to affect me as a coach. And because we had so many juniors last year to fill in those spots. The tricky part is going to be this year graduating eight seniors. And I only have four juniors right now on my team.”
TA: How would you describe the development of the youth feeder programs right now with BASA, BYSA and the middle school programs?
Moran: “Barre has been pretty fortunate. Scott Dolan has stepped in to one of the leadership roles at BASA and he worked really hard at making sure that right now there’s a fall program going on for U12, which is something that we haven’t had at BASA before. So he’s doing a great job of trying to connect with that graded-school level kid, sixth grade and under. And there are a couple players in sixth, seventh and eighth grade that are playing club right now. And that’s something that we’ve missed — boys and girls. We haven’t had club players.”
TA: For someone like you who grew up playing soccer in Barre, does it feel like things are night and day different compared to 40 years ago?
Moran: “Unfortunately I think we’re still struggling to get players from Barre to play at a higher level in the off-season. When I was a kid, I couldn’t tell you anybody who was playing club. (Olympic Development Programs) was basically the only thing that was heard about in our area. And only one or two players from my time at Spaulding even tried out for ODP. And now we’re still in that same situation. I think that BASA is trying to create an environment of higher-level play as much as they can. But what would be good for Barre is if we had players who wanted to play club, whether it be Capital, Far Post, Nordic, Synergy, whatever. I think that’s the thing we’re missing in our area. You go next door to U-32 and Montpelier, and you’ve got six, seven or eight players on each team who are playing club.”
TA: Speaking of U-32 and Montpelier, they were both eliminated by Rice last year in the D-II playoffs. And you look at what Milton and Mount Abe have done consistently. What are your thoughts on the Lake Division?
Moran: “The Lake Division is a strong division, there’s no doubt about it. The thing I hate most about the Lake Division is we travel way too much. It’s really hard to keep your motivation when you’re on a bus ride for an hour and a half before you go play a game. And the same thing with them coming to us. I think the quality of the Lake Division doesn’t drop at all from the Capital. When you get to the Metro, there’s just more kids in those areas and there’s more kids playing at a higher level.”
TA: Are you saying that home-field advantage is exaggerated with your team playing in the Lake Division?
Moran: “When you get on the bus to go to U-32 or Montpelier, I don’t see much on a home-field advantage. But if you get on the bus to go to Middlebury, I definitely think that the home team has a slight advantage. And for them to come to us, I feel the same way. It’s a long bus ride.”
TA: It’s been eight years since Spaulding girls soccer has won a playoff game. I know there’s been some chances, but do you think that’s something the girls would really like to accomplish this year?
Moran: “You play the season for the playoffs. And when you get into that first round of the playoffs, the only thing you’re thinking about is trying to get a win. I’d like to think think that these girls are pretty excited and they’re motivated and they want to win. We’ve been working really hard in training the last couple weeks and I’ve seen a lot of improvement already. The focus is getting ready for playoffs.”
TA: Has everything gone pretty well with the masks and the protocol during preseason?
Moran: “We’re following the protocol to a ‘T’ and there have been no surprises around COVID. We all know what we’re supposed to be doing and we’re doing it. I can definitely tell that we’ve had to cut back a little bit on the work effort in training or take more breaks. Because putting in 100% with the masks on, it does gas the players a lot faster. That’s probably been the only thing slowing us down. And I can’t imagine we’re the only team feeling that.”
TA: Did you hear about the NFL coaches getting fined $100,000 for not wearing a mask?
Moran: “Unfortunately, I think we look as these teams to set the example. Everybody has an argument about a mask. But honestly, if that’s what we have to do to protect people and to make it so we can play, put a mask on. It’s that simple.”
TA: A lot was thrown at Lily as a freshman goalie and she handled it with her chin up. Any thoughts on how she improved last year and what you expect to see this year? She played almost every game as a freshman, right?
Moran: “She did. It was an impossible task we threw at Lily last year, and she stepped in and did it like a champion. She did not complain and she worked her butt off every day in practice to improve. We would go into a game and a couple goals would go in. And her attitude was still the attitude of a player who just wants to do the best she can. I constantly checked in with her because I knew the position she was in was more than I could ask of any player. And I was worried about how that would affect her. She’s a really good kid and she works really hard. And this year we have Rebecca, who is going to take some of that goalie role too. So I’m not putting it all on Lily this year. And both Lily and Rebecca are good field players, so we’re going to be able to get them out there as well.”
TA: Any other team goals you guys have talked about? I guess you’re just trying to get a game in here first.
Moran: “One of the toughest things about this season is our first game will be our first time really having 11-vs.-11 and seeing what it looks like. And because they cancelled this week, we have no scrimmages planned. One of the toughest things is that you go in and you have a practice plan ready for training. But until you see where you really need the most work by playing in a game, it’s really hard. I’ve been coaching for awhile, so I can guess where we’ll need the most work. And I can tell in training where we’re down and where we need to work. But having that first game and seeing how things come together and what might need to be adjusted, that’s important. Not having that scrimmage — and I’m sure it’s going to affect a lot of teams — is going to affect our first week of playing. I may have to make some adjustments or put players in different spots. Or they may go out there and look great.”
TA: “And it could be mid-70s some days. So do you think it will be tough when everyone has their masks on for the first time on a full field?
Moran: “I think it will affect some of the players. The players who have a higher work rate are going to burn out quicker. You’re getting oxygen, but you’re just getting hot oxygen when you’re breathing through that thing. And your body doesn’t get a chance to cool down. So it’s going to be something to pay attention to.”