A year ago, Belle Vernon’s girls soccer team had a 13-3 record with a pair of its losses being by one goal.
One of those one-goal losses ended the Leopards’ season in devastating fashion as it dropped a 3-2 decision to Oakland Catholic, a match that ended on penalty kicks after two overtimes, when Belle Vernon gave up the tying goal with one second left in regulation.
While the loss was heartbreaking then, it fueled and motivated the team all offseason and now, the deep Leopards are ready to take the next step.
“I have high expectations for this group, and there is nothing wrong with having high expectations,” said third-year coach Tracy Lovett. “I have faith we will be very competitive in our section, and I believe we can make a deeper run in the postseason as well. But we will focus on the section first and take it one game at a time.”
Belle Vernon is in Class 3A Section 2 along with Trinity, Ringgold, Laurel Highlands, Albert Gallatin, Uniontown, Greensburg Salem and defending section champion Connellsville.
“Our section is a tough section, and we expect the most competitive games to be with Connellsville, Ringgold and Trinity,” Lovett said. “I also made sure we have a competitive out-of-section matches to best prepare the team for (the section).”
Belle Vernon has the experience to make a run at the section title and to make some postseason noise as it returns eight starters and several key reserves from last year’s team.
“With that many starters returning, and with many underclassmen competing for starting spots or quality playing time, I feel we have a very balanced team,” Lovett said. “We have depth and are experimenting with a couple different formations. My goal is to find one that best fits us to give us the greatest chance to be successful.”
Lovett pointed out the four team captains as the Leopards’ key players.
Senior midfielder Morgan Einodshofer, a four-year starter, is the team leader and will be the speaking captain.
“Morgan is a standout both on and off the field and will be our playmaker and main facilitator on the field,” said Lovett. “Morgan broke the school assist record last year, has been all-section for two years and I expect a big season out of her.”
Einodshofer finished with 19 goals and 22 assists last season and for her career, she has 57 goals and 65 assists.
Another key returning starter is senior defender Adeline Guess, another four-year starter and two-time all-section player.
“She is the leader of our back line and anchors us back there,” Lovett. “She also has a very high soccer IQ.”
Junior forward Farrah Reader, who has 42 goals and 28 assists, is also a two-time all-section player.
“Farrah is a force offensively and I am expecting her to have a big season,” Lovett said. “She has the size, speed, physicality and strength on and off the ball to make things happen for us.”
Sophomore midfielder Kataira Rhodes started a year ago at midfield and Lovett shared that Rhodes’ growth last year was obvious.
“She fit right in with our seasoned players and now it is her time to shine even more,” Lovett said of Rhodes, who finished with three goals and 11 assists. “Her work ethic, coachability, and dedication speak for itself.”
Einodshofer and Guess are in their second year as captains while Reader and Rhodes are in their first.
Other returning starters include a trio of defenders in senior Chloe Morgan, junior Laurel Lenhardt and sophomore Kalin Lezama as well as junior goalie and midfielder Victoria Rodriguez.
Lovett said the rest of the starting lineup is still being decided on the pitch but she did mention sophomores Melyana Morgan and Kaylee Antonic as well as freshmen Grace West, Ava Scalise and Sammy Mincone as having solid fall camps.
Both Rodriguez and Melyana Morgan could see time in goal or in the field.
“We have to stay healthy and continue to work hard as a team,” Lovett said. “We also need to focus on finding the back of the net in the more competitive games.”
Belle Vernon opens the season Saturday when it hosts Kiski in the Paul Sasko Memorial Classic Kickoff Labor Day Weekend Tournament.