January 25, 2013 1:38:25 AM
Young is a relative term as far as Mary Nagy is concerned.
On paper, the New Hope High School girls soccer team's roster is littered with 11 sophomores and a host of freshmen and middle schoolers. But don't be fooled. Those class years tell only part of the story.
The way Nagy sees it, many of her key performers have been with the program or several years, so they are ready to leave the excuses based on age and inexperience behind them.
"The maturity is here and they have had such great role models," Nagy said. "These girls have known since they were seventh-graders that they are such a special group because they have always known they have had the biggest group. We have always said you have to keep yourselves together. You can't decide that soccer is not your thing. You have to make a commitment now if you want the program to be where you want it and where we want it and where we know it is heading."
New Hope (17-4-1) will try to end a three-year losing streak to Ridgeland (12-3-6) at 2 p.m. Saturday when it plays host to the perennial state power in the second round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State playoffs.
Ridgeland has defeated New Hope in the second round the past two seasons. Three seasons ago, when New Hope made its return to the playoffs after a long drought, Ridgeland won in a first-round match.
This season, New Hope is coming off the high of yet another overtime victory, a 2-1 decision at Saltillo. Senior Regan Hern scored the game-winning goal for New Hope, which came in second in its district to Starkville based on goal differential. The teams split two regular-season matches. Starkville plays host to Center Hill at 2 p.m. Saturday. The Golden Triangle rivals could play each other in the North State title match Jan. 29. The state final will be Feb. 1-2.
To get that far, New Hope will have to avoid the fate it faced in 2010 and in 2012. In 2010, Ridgeland won 6-0. In 2011, New Hope hung tough only to suffer a 4-2 defeat. Last season, Ridgeland rolled to a 10-0 victory. It held a 35-2 edge in shots. Ridgeland went on to win the state title, its eighth championship.
But don't think New Hope will be intimidated because it will rely on three or freshmen -- Farris Bradley, Madison Thrasher, McKenzie Harvey, and Brooke Younger -- and four sophomores -- Effie Morrison, Kayla Smith, Abby Wilson, and Sam Vogel -- in the starting lineup. Erin Robertson and Ashley Martian are the only junior starters. Pernille Slettestoel, an exchange student, and Hern are the other starters.
The way Nagy sees it, many of those players have been with the program for several years, so Saturday is as good a time as any to take the next step.
Nine of the sophomores on the roster are considered varsity players, but not all of them have the same level of experience. Some, like Morrison, have played club soccer and have been starters since seventh grade. Others like Brooke Ann Duett, Bethany Vaughan, Sydney Jenkins, and Caroline Walker are in their first or second years with the team. The Lady Trojans have blend the experience levels within the sophomore class with the rest of the squad to form a group that is ready to cash in on its potential.
"It is very special playing with this group," said Walker, a transfer from Columbus High. "We are all so close. It helps us a lot (having as many sophomores as they do on the team). As we grow and mature, by the time we get to our senior year we will be 10 steps ahead of where we are now, and we are already ahead."
Jenkins feels each of the sophomores has matured in her own way. In her second season with the program, Jenkins had to adjust from youth soccer -- she last played in the fourth grade -- to high school ball.
Smith, who helps anchor the defense, feels a responsibility to mature faster because she and several of her classmates are expected to perform to a certain level. She said she and her teammates willingly accept what the coaches ask of them because it is a challenge they know they can handle.
"We knocked off a winner in another region the last three years. That says things are on the upswing, positive things are happening here," Nagy said. "We're not happy with that. The status quo doesn't work anymore. We have talked since Tuesday about what is to come. Ridgeland is like a football dynasty. They are the dynasty in soccer for the past six or seven years I have been acquainted with Ridgeland, but it doesn't mean there day won't come. One day it will be our turn, and who says it's not going to be Saturday because these girls are ready and they are up for the challenge."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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