Cal U soccer leaning on two Alle-Kiski locals
For Kelsey Russo, this California (Pa.) women's soccer season serves a last hurrah.
For Danielle Kearns, this season serves as a resounding hello.
Both girls will get at least one more chance to make the most of the Vulcans' memorable fall.
Russo, a fifth-year senior midfielder and Fox Chapel graduate, and Kearns, a freshman midfielder and Deer Lakes alumnus, start for the Vulcans (17-2-2), who earned their second Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship in team history Nov. 9 and have secured the top seed in the Atlantic region of the NCAA Division II tournament, which begins Sunday.
Cal, ranked No. 6 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll and set to play PSAC rival Kutztown at noon in the first round, is unbeaten in its past 18 games, due in part to the stellar two-way play of Russo and Kearns, who've combined for seven goals and four assists.
Cal's roster also includes Springdale grad Kayla Harmon, a junior defender.
Even after he moved Russo from a defense-first midfield position to a spot that's more integral to the offense, second-year coach Gene Smith expected strong performances from the Fox Chapel product, a 2012 All-PSAC third-team selection with four goals and one assist who also has earned major minutes since her arrival in 2009.
“She does all the things that you wouldn't notice on a stat sheet,” Smith said of Russo. “What we ask her to do is kind of hold up our attack. … We're asking her to find passes.
“She generates a lot of scoring opportunities for other people. I would say she's one of the main reasons why we have such a good offense this year.”
Said Russo: “I came in with the mindset to play holding mid, and then he put me up top, and I was iffy. I didn't want to, but I did, and things went smoothly.
“I was a little nervous at first, but now the season is great. … I had to get back in the swing of holding the ball up there and looking to connect with other forwards.”
Cal, which averaged a PSAC-high 2.76 goals per game, looked to Kearns to fill the void left by Russo's position switch. Kearns has answered the challenge in resounding fashion.
“She plays well beyond her years,” Smith said. “You'd never feel that she's a freshman on the field. She's very smooth, doesn't panic and plays her position incredibly well.
“Especially in our program, where we're so challenging and so competitive with our girls, (freshmen) panic a little bit. Sometimes it takes them a year to develop and get used to the speed of the game. But Danielle just hit the ground running.”
Such a prominent role on this year's team came as a surprise to Smith — and Kearns, too.
“I expected to get playing time, but not as much as what I'm getting,” said Kearns, who leads Cal freshmen in game appearances (21) and starts (15).
“At the beginning, I thought it was really fast and a lot different. I had to really focus to keep up. But now that I'm used to it, it's a lot easier. And the girls really help with everything, just talking us through stuff.”
Kearns' ability to thrive in both the offensive and defensive end struck Smith as a rarity.
Normally freshmen come in as offensive or defensive standouts, he said, but Kearns has displayed remarkable balance.
The coach's biggest critique of Kearns: She doesn't shoot enough.
Kearns has taken 17 shots, seven of which were on goal and three of which found the back of the net.
“She defers a lot to teammates, and that's the one thing that I think makes her a freshman,” Smith said. “She doesn't have the aggressive mentally of an upperclassman. … I think she'll grow out of that, as most freshmen do.”
At the start of the season, Russo wanted to start at the same midfield position as last year.
But the Vulcans' string of victories changed her perspective.
“I couldn't ask for a better senior season,” Russo said. “Looking at it right now, I like playing center forward. It's gotten me success, too, and we won the PSAC, so Coach obviously knows what he's doing. He put me up top for a reason.”