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Jon Gerardi on girls soccer: South Williamsport girls overcame rough start to year

To say South Williamsport had a bit of a bumpy start to begin the year is an understatement.

The Mounties opened the year 1-4 and with a very young team, it’s often hard to gauge how that early-season adversity will affect their play and mentality.

It’s also the perfect time to see how a team can respond. You can either shake it off, focus and give it your all on getting back to the winning side of things or let it keep your heads down.

The Mounties did the former.

South Williamsport has gone 6-1 since that start entering Tuesday and won five consecutive games. And in those consecutive wins, the Mounties have allowed just three goals.

“At the start of the season I feel that we had just not played enough with each other yet to truly click as a team,” South Williamsport’s Haley Neidig said. “But now as the season has gone on with practice every day and more games, we know how one another plays. We also changed our lineup and formations constantly because what we were doing was just not working. But with the help of Marc (Lovecchio) and our other captain Amilee (Miller), we came up with a starting lineup and formation that is very solid.”

“If you told me I’d be 5-5 with this young of a team, I’d say ‘sure, I’d take it,'” South Williamsport coach Marc Lovecchio said after a 3-1 win over Loyalsock last Tuesday to get to .500.

Lovecchio knows the team has a tough stretch to close out the year — the Mounties have to play Southern Columbia and Benton yet — but the fact South Williamsport got over .500 and weathered that early storm is promising. And it starts with the girls on the field working hard and giving it their all.

“They’re working hard, they’re growing. Am I surprised? No. I’m happy,” Lovecchio said. “They’re just getting better and that’s all we want to do.”

South Williamsport has just three seniors and three juniors on its 21-girl roster and by far, the leader on the field is senior Haley Neidig.

Neidig’s a senior captain for South Williamsport and you can see her give it everything each game. She leads the team in scoring with 18 goals entering Tuesday — second in the area behind only Sullivan’s Chloe Burke, who has 22 — but Neidig is more than just a scoring threat.

She helps set her teammates up routinely and her physicality on the field is a huge asset, never backing away from a 50/50 ball or closing in on a ball on the field. Watch any South game, and you’ll see Neidig hustling constantly to balls and trying to get things set up for her teammates to get the best scoring chances.

“Haley’s a great player. We’re really lucky to have her. She’s been a mainstay for a long period of time. She’s not only talented, but she’s a great leader. You get no drama and she never stops working. She doesn’t get frustrated. She just keeps working and working and working,” Lovecchio said.

And Neidig’s leadership is easily trickling down to the younger players who are stepping up. Piper Minier, a freshman, came up with two big goals in a 3-1 win over Loyalsock last Tuesday. Two freshmen help control the midfield in Brooklyn Lentz and Aleigha Rieppel and the Mounties’ back line features two sophomores in Claudia Green and Olivia Casella.

“You look at the girls who are playing in different places and they’re young and they’re still stepping up. I mean my back line has no seniors. And then you look at Amilee Miller in the middle, she did a great job possessing the ball and knocking the ball around (vs. Loyalsock),” Lovecchio said. “Aleigha Rieppel, she did a nice job too.”

Lovecchio is glad South’s younger players are stepping up and with the last two weeks of the season wrapping up before playoffs, that’s just where the Mounties want to be as South is clicking at the right time. And those wins are building confidence in South Williamsport.

“Our now five-game win streak has definitely given us some confidence, especially the back-to-back wins against Loyalsock and Bloomsburg,” Neidig said, noting how the Mounties lost to both teams earlier in the season. “Beating great teams like that has just made us realize that we have developed into a great team as well. The way our young team has been playing is very exciting and makes us want to get better each game.”

DANGEROUS FROM

ANYWHERE

If there’s a whistle and Lewisburg is awarded a free kick, you’re going to see Lewisburg senior Chloe Michaels hustling over to the ball to take the kick. And soon afterwards, you’ll see exactly why she takes them all.

Michaels is as dangerous a player as you could be taking free kicks. It doesn’t exactly matter where she’s at on the field either. The kick could be just outside the 18, 25 yards out, 40 yards out, even at the midfield line.

If Michaels is kicking, there’s a solid chance she’s going to create something, or possibly even score.

Numerous times Saturday against Loyalsock, Michaels displayed that ability. She nearly had a free kick from midfield take a high bounce for a goal, only having it blocked by Loyalsock goalie Mari Houseknecht’s fingers.

She had a free kick 35 yards out that she drilled right at the right upright, just narrowly missing being an incredible goal.

“I think it does (give us confidence) and I think they know they can read me pretty well. ‘I have to follow on this ball’ or ‘I’m gonna go here because that’s where her tendency is,'” Michaels said. “They’ve played off of me and that’s huge.

“Terry (Gerlinski) and I have worked on free kicks and work on the placement, the location is important to me. Just being able to read our players knowing who can finish and who’s willing to put their body on the ball and that kind of dictates where I’m gonna place it and try to score. Most of the time, I’m trying to score, but that second ball is important for us.”

NOT MISSING A BEAT

Lewisburg got to the state championship game last year and this past offseason, the team lost longtime coach Jose Vega, who stepped down. Terry Gerlinski is the new coach this year, but he’s kept up Lewisburg’s passion and determination, and the girls have played excellent all year.

That’s why the Green Dragons are 11-4-1 and are playoff bound yet again.

As to what exactly the key to that success has been?

“They’re stepping up and they’re completing what we’re working on. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it happens, I think they see how it works and it’s working better. The things that we work on, they try. They’re not always hugely successful at it, but the results from them during that are kind of like a lightbulb,” Gerlinski said after a 3-0 win over Loyalsock on Saturday. “‘Oh OK, I see what we’re saying, I see what we’re doing.’ … They’re really working on communication and that kind of stuff right now. Trying to work on the runs, we were kind of flat the first half, second half we had more runs. Those kind of things. It’s that recognition of things.”

Gerlinski also noted how well the team adapts and changes during a game, recognizing what an opposing team is doing to attack them or defend against them and how to adjust. That’s what talented teams do, and Lewisburg is no different.

The Green Dragons have posted seven shutouts with Lauren Gross in goal for all seven, and the Green Dragons back line is one of the toughest in the area by far.

Chloe Michaels, Elena Malone, Madeleine Still, Madison Cardello. Those four help anchor a defense that’s allowed an average of less than a goal a game and an average of just six shots against per game.

“We take a lot of pride (in our defense). We work as a unit,” Michaels said. “Terry really has us together and really taking pride in the fact that we all work together, we all click, we make things happen and we protect Lauren back there. We do everything in our power to just protect us.

“I think it gives us a lot of confidence given that we’re back here working hard, keeping balls out of the net and our offense is able to generate chances and generate good opportunities and put the ball in the back of the net. I think that’s huge for us.”

Not to mention the emergence of freshman Sophie Kilbride, who has been a huge offensive weapon for the Green Dragons. She leads the team with nine goals and is a great compliment to junior Ella Reish. Together, the duo have 19 goals and are a threat for teams to try to shutdown and mark.

“She brings this new thing to our team and energy. She’s spunky. We love having her,” Michaels said of Kilbride. “She makes things happen and her and Ella work really well up top with crosses, small passes and small touches. She’s huge for us.”

JON GERARDI’S TOP 5 GIRLS SOCCER RANKINGS

1. Lewisburg (11-4-1) — The Green Dragons have allowed just six total shots in their past two games. Lewisburg’s defense hasn’t missed a beat since last year and that defensive effort is helping fuel the offense. The defense plays lights out and offensively, the Green Dragons are not at all shy in terms of firing off shots. Five players have accounted for a goal or assist in the last two games and Sophie Kilbride is quickly emerging as an enormous weapon for the Green Dragons.

2. Williamsport (9-2-3) — The Millionaires battled Selinsgrove to a double scoreless draw before beating Milton, 4-3, Thursday. Credit the Millionaires’ back line and its midfield for helping control things against the Seals. Lila Vogelsong came up big in goal, recording 10 saves to preserve the shutout and not allow Selinsgrove to go ahead.

3. Montoursville (7-3-3) — The Warriors defeated a very tough and solid Warrior Run team Tuesday, 1-0, before falling to Selinsgrove two days later, 2-1. The Seals are a seven-win team and battled Montoursville tough. Bella Masias came up big with a penalty kick goal against the Seals and added an assist in the win over Warrior Run on Hannah Albert’s goal.

4. Hughesville (7-5-1) — The Spartans have matched their win total for the last two years — both times going 7-11 — but Hughesville is hoping to qualify for the playoffs. The Spartans haven’t made the postseason since 2015 and haven’t won a playoff game since beating Mount Carmel in 2013 in the District 4 Class A playoffs. Hughesville is two wins from qualifying and no doubt the players — especially Hughesville’s seniors — want to get to the postseason.

5. South Williamsport (7-5)– At one point, South Williamsport was sitting at 1-4. Now? The Mounties are 7-5 and seem to be clicking at the right time as the season is entering its final two weeks. South Williamsport is playing well all-around, and offensively, numerous players are getting involved. The Mounties have won five consecutive games to get over .500.

PLAYERS OF THE WEEK: Mari Houseknecht, Loyalsock and Bethany Beinlich, Sullivan County — You could argue that Houseknecht is Loyalsock’s MVP for her play in goal. Against South Williamsport, she came up countless times with enormous saves, including a great diving stop to the right post on an excellent shot by Haley Neidig to prevent a goal in a loss to the Mounties. Against Lewisburg, she came up with a handful of great stops.

Beinlich continues to climb the ranks on Sullivan’s all-time girls scoring list. She scored twice against Milton to record her 60th career goal, putting her ahead of Mary Kate Ryan (58, 1994-97). She’s now four from tying Jen Mercer (1999-02, 64). Beinlich had a hat trick and two assists in a 5-3 win against Muncy on Wednesday.

Jon Gerardi covers girls soccer for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached by email at jgerardi@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonGerardi.

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