Girls’ evolution evident in quarter century of PIAA soccer

RALPH WILSON/For The Sun-Gazette Williamsport, with Haley Whitford, competed in the PIAA soccer playoffs this season as District 2-4 Class AAAA champion.

This year, players on Southern Columbia’s girls soccer team asked assistant coach Jen Stine if they could watch old film of her and former teammate Erin Snyder playing in the late 1990s.

Stine told her players that they had to preview it first to make sure they were as as good as they had remembered.

“Lucky for us it wasn’t so bad,” Stine joked. “We all had a great time and a good laugh watching it.”

It goes to show how much the quality of play in girls soccer has increased over the past quarter century.

This year marks the 25-year anniversary — and 26th season — of the girls state tournament and if you were to ask Stine what she recalls about the early days of the girls state tournament, it’s that it’s nothing to what it is nowadays.

“There were only two classifications then — only an eight-team state bracket — and District 4 made up three of the four eastern teams. It was still an impressive tournament, but it was nothing like the diversity of teams it is today,” Stine said.

The first PIAA state tournament was held for girls soccer in 1992 and there were no separate classes back then, just one tournament and eight teams that got in. In 1996, the PIAA broke girls soccer into two classifications with Class AA and AAA. In 2010, it went to three classes and then four in 2016. Also, in 2012, it ditched the spring season and had every school play in the fall, giving each classification one true state champion.

In part, club and travel ball, not to mention youth programs, have a lot to do with that great success that has helped improve the quality of play during those 25 years.

There are also other factors in that time, such as multiple generations growing up with Title IX’s gender equity and the enduring popularity of the U.S. women’s national team at the Women’s World Cup.

“The teams as a whole are incredibly different (now). Kids today have so much exposure to training and playing at different levels,” Stine said. “This is evident in the evolution of the game. Teams are faster and much more technical with the ball. It’s amazing to see the level of knowledge and understanding kids today have of the game.”

“The technicality is so much more (compared to years ago). To compete even in our district here you got to pretty much play year-round,” Williamsport girls coach Scott McNeill said. “We’re in the weight room after Thanks­giving and my girls will be playing indoor and then I bus up the middle school girls after Christ­mas for the middle school season in the spring. It’s a year-round job.”

One just has to look at past few years in the district and see how many girls soccer players have gone on to play in college at Division I schools: Millville’s Maci and Madi Bower (La Salle), Danville’s Siobhan Bross and Montoursville’s Bri Ulmer (St. Francis), Milton’s Caitlin Landis (Kentucky), Central Mountain’s Sam Lofton (James Madison) and South Williamsport’s Christa Matlack (Bucknell).

The list goes on.

And it didn’t take long for District 4 to have success in the state tournament. After two years of not advancing out of first round, Warrior Run in 1994 made the first step in winning in states for District 4, advancing into the quarterfinals, a team that featured current coach Jen Allen.

Southern Columbia was the first girls team to advance to a state semifinal, doing so in the 1998 Class AA tournament, losing to eventual state champion Villa Joseph Marie. And from 1998 to 2004, a District 4 team appeared in every state semifinal. In 2006, District 4 had its first girls team appear in a state final when South Williamsport won the Class AA championship.

From Warrior Run’s Robyn Brown and Alecia Gold, Southern’s Snyder and South’s Lyndy Levan in the 1990s to Montoursville’s Tesa McKibben, Matlack and Landis in the 2000s, numerous talented district players helped their teams have success over the last quarter century.

And look at players around the district, and you’ll see talented players peppered throughout girls teams.

“We see true soccer players, not just athletes who play soccer,” Stine said.