Back for More: County girls soccer teams ready to make their runs

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HANCOCK COUNTY — Locally, the 2020 high school girls soccer season undeniably belonged to the Mt. Vernon Marauders.

While their string of four consecutive Hoosier Heritage Conference team titles came to an end last fall — as rival Yorktown (7-0) found a way to best the Marauders (6-1) in the final standings — they still collected some championship hardware this past October.

A sectional champion for the first time since 2015 (2A), Class 3A Mt. Vernon won 10 of its last 11 games last season to reach the regional finals and required overtime to halt the team’s memorable postseason run.

This season, the Marauders return to the pitch just as talented and motivated, though with a new head coach in Aaron Britt, who takes over for Steve Williams, a program mainstay since 2014 before stepping down last year.

The New Palestine Dragons (10-7, 5-2 HHC) reached the sectional finals a year ago before falling to the eventual champion Marauders, but they weren’t too far behind, placing third in the HHC.

The Greenfield-Central Cougars (7-9-1, 4-3) were fourth in the HHC in 2020 and are regrouping for an even stronger potential showing in 2021.

Marauders embracing the target

The Mt. Vernon Marauders finished 16-3 overall on the season in 2020 and won 10 straight games to capture the program’s third sectional all time and second in five years.

Formerly led by head coach Steve Williams, the Marauders averaged 5.2 goals per game and nearly reached the century mark in goals scored at 99 with 68 assists last season.

Despite losing seven seniors to graduation, including goals leader Anna Isger (Western Kentucky) and defensive captain Katie Gawrys (Bellarmine), the Marauders aren’t projected to skip a beat on the field in 2021.

That includes at head coach where 1998 Mt. Vernon graduate Aaron Britt has been hired to fill the void left behind following Williams’ retirement.

Britt served as a varsity boys assistant coach from 2000-09 and was head coach of the program from 2009-14. In his tenure with the boys team, Britt steered the Marauders to sectional titles in 2010 and 2012, and he will be coaching two of his three daughters (Riley and Reagan) in his first year with the Mt. Vernon girls.

“I’m just glad to be back. Like I’ve told my players and their parents, since kind of stepping away, I’ve been coaching my kids, but kind of at a much younger age group,” Britt said. “It’s been really cool to be with (my daughters and the team), and it’s exciting in a little bit different way because I’ve missed some of the competitiveness. That’s been refreshing to get back into that environment.”

The Marauders will jump right into “the hunted” role this season after winning the East Central Sectional title last fall and five of the past eight HHC team titles.

“I think we’re in a good spot. I think, specifically, with our seniors, we’ve talked about that (having that target). It’s a good spot to be in. They deserve it, the attention, the recognition from other teams, from other schools. All of that is deserved, but with that comes some responsibility,” Britt said.

“We’re going to play some talent and every game they play is against that type of opponent, so we’re going to get their best, which means they have to do it every single game.”

The Marauders have the firepower to build on their past successes as two of the program’s top scorers from 2020 are back in senior Shay Shipley (17 goals, nine assists) and sophomore Mattie Isger (14 goals, seven assists).

Add in Cincinnati recruit senior Maddie Swingle (five goals), and the Marauders have a solid group to challenge yet again.

“There’s a good core of returning starters. Three of our captains will be Riley (Britt), Maddie Swingle and Shay Shipley, so three, multi-year starters are the core of the team,” Britt said.

“All of those players returning is obviously good. It’s good to have solid group of people in the starting 11 that have been there before and did some pretty awesome things last year. There’s a strong senior core and then the rest of the varsity squad we will have heavy contributors.”

Shipley, Mattie Isger and Swingle each were named to the 2020 All-HHC team and will be among five seniors and a trio of sophomores and freshmen set to guide the Marauders this season.

Riley Britt, a senior goalkeeper, returns in the net after recording 54 saves in 19 games last season. She will be joined in the back by Swingle, sophomore Ellie Gawrys and freshman Reagan Britt.

Shipley and Mattie Isger will be up top, while senior Brianna Hale and sophomore Lillian Muhlenkamp and junior Mariam Konate will provide additional experience and chemistry.

Senior Lily Wilson, a transfer student last season, will suit up for the first time as a Marauder this year and will be one of a few newcomers that also consist of freshmen Addy Wong and Kylie Brandes.

“We’ll have five core seniors that are likely starters and then there’s a good chance we’ll have six freshmen and sophomores filling in and playing at a very high level. I don’t expect much drop off, if any, to be quite honest,” Britt said. “It’s pretty exciting on that front to see some of the younger players coming in and at that level.”

Dragons eager to strike

The New Palestine Dragons had to contend with several injuries and other unexpected setbacks in 2020, but the program remained a threat regardless.

Head coach Erin Clark’s group finished the season with 10 wins and third in the HHC. New Palestine only lost two conference games against both teams that placed higher in the final standings than Clark’s program, which reached the sectional finals.

This year, the 3A Dragons will be led by seven key returnees in junior Maddy Potter (defense), junior Anna Luker (midfield), sophomore Allie Blum (forward), sophomore McKenzie Davis (forward), senior Maddy Smathers (defense), junior Sydney Miller (defense) and sophomore Vivian Miller (defense).

“Our team is young but still has a lot of experience. We return several juniors who have started since their freshman year. We have added in some new freshman talent and have several sophomores returning after starting their freshman year,” Clark said. “So, although young, we are experienced. We have a fantastic set of leaders all of whom are juniors, who we are super proud of and know they will lead this team well.”

Luker tallied 11 goals in 17 matches in 2020 with 11 assists, while Blum and Potter combined for seven goals and five assists.

Newcomers Tylar Whitaker (midfield), Abby Lambdin (midfield) and Bethany Blachly (defense) — all freshmen — give the Dragons a youthful infusion as they attempt to close the gap this season.

“I have a very talented group of girls who have risen to the challenge since I started here in New Pal. They show up every day ready to put in the work necessary to compete. They don’t complain and always give 110 percent. It’s hard to find a team with the type of grit they have,” Clark said. “They are a very cohesive group that works well together and celebrates successes together. They are very selfless and don’t care who scores or who gets the accolades. They genuinely care about the team and put the team before themselves.”

Young Cougars ready to compete

Last season was an odyssey for the Greenfield-Central Cougars.

Overall, the Cougars (7-9-1, 4-3 HHC) lost 117 player games due to injuries and COVID-19 contact tracing protocols. It was the equivalent to almost losing eight players off their roster, Cougars head coach Brandon Steeno noted.

It was a devastating blow for the program, which competed in the 13th-toughest strength of schedule, Steeno said.

However, with hardship could come the potential reward in 2021 despite being without former team leader Kelsi McLaughlin (22 goals and eight assists), a senior, who won’t be competing with Cougars this season.

“This team, more than any other I’ve been a part of in my six years at GCHS, is a tight-knit group. We have a great group of leaders in Nora Gardner, Cora Bishop and Sarah Contreraz that have done a fantastic job of leading by example, while also mentoring our freshmen and sophomores,” Steeno said.

“We bring in a lot of new faces this year, including players that were on the team last year but didn’t get to play for a myriad of reasons. Gardner, Emma Rennier, Haley Arthur, Addie Bennett and Callie Means were looked at to start last year but were hurt for all or most of the season.”

Back at full strength as a whole, the Cougars will lean on their key returners in juniors Bishop (midfield), Contreraz (midfield), Gladys Rodriguez (midfield) and Gardner (defense), a senior, along with sophomore Kalyn Moss (defense).

Newcomer Alyssa Deckard (midfield/forward), a freshman, will be vital to the Cougars’ depth as will sophomores Addie Bennett (midfield/forward) and Callie Means (midfield/defense), who both played in a combined 11 games in 2020.

Seniors Arthur (midfield) and Rennier (defense) were limited to eight games combined last season and return ready for more minutes this fall.

“With youth, we will have some turbulence, but I am excited to see how they bounce back and learn from those opportunities for growth,” Steeno said. “We will compete until the final horn in every single game, and that is all I can ask of them. It’s invigorating to have a team hungry like this.”