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Highlands girls soccer continues success under 1st-year coach

| Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012, 12:20 a.m.
Valley News Dispatch
Highlands soccer coach Mark Duffield watches the action during a match against Freeport at Highlands High School on Monday, Sept. 17, 2012. Bill Shirley | For the Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Highlands goalkeeper Samantha Kovach, shown here on Sept. 18, 2012, will lead her team against Quaker Valley on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, at Hopewell in the first round of the WPIAL Class AA soccer playoffs. Bill Shirley | For the Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Highlands Sammy Ohl (No. 22) makes a play on the ball during a match against Freeport at Highlands High School on Monday, Sept. 17, 2012. Bill Shirley | For the Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Highlands soccer coach Mark Duffield instructs his team during a match against Freeport at Highlands High School on Monday, Sept. 17, 2012. Bill Shirley | For the Valley News Dispatch

First-year Highlands girls soccer coach Mark Duffield lives in Homer City, Indiana County, which presents him with a round-trip of nearly two hours to the school.

“It's worth the drive, definitely,” said Duffield, who knows a lot about long-distance travel.

A 28-year-old native of Chichester, England, Duffield has taken the challenge of keeping Highlands on the high road following its breakthrough 2011 season.

Last year, the Golden Rams earned a trip to the WPIAL playoffs for the first time since 1997. However, during the offseason, coach Greg Meyer stepped down because of personal obligations.

But the Golden Rams, who graduated only one starter, don't look like they will take a step backward this fall.

Highlands (5-2 overall) holds third place in Section 2-AA with a 3-1 record, and the top three finishers advance to the postseason. The Golden Rams' only losses are to Mars (5-1-1, 5-0), which leads Section 2-AA and is ranked No. 1 by Trib Total Media, and Quaker Valley (6-0-1).

Highlands will get a better indication of how it fits among the playoff contenders in Section 2-AA when the Golden Rams visit Knoch (6-1, 4-0) at 7 p.m. tonight.

“Making the playoffs last year has motivated us,” said senior center midfielder Natalie Richards, who has scored a team-leading nine goals and is receiving attention from Division I Robert Morris. “Maybe we can go further than the first round. Mark's been great. He believes in us, and we believe in him.”

Highlands already is close to its wins total from last year, when the Golden Rams (8-10, 7-7) lost in the first round of the playoffs.

A key for Highlands has been the play of sophomore goalkeeper Samantha Kovach, a returning starter who has posted three shutouts. Kovach might be the player who has benefitted the most from the hiring of Duffield, whose specialty is tutoring keepers.

“He's made me a really good goalie, compared to what I was last year,” Kovach said. “He called me a line hugger (referring to the goal line). He told me it was OK to leave my comfort zone near the net and challenge opponents.”

The 6-foot-4 Duffield is a former keeper who played for Chichester College Academy in southern England. He coached in his home country for several years before coming to the United States to work as a soccer camp instructor. He then married an American woman and settled down in Western Pennsylvania.

Even though Highlands returned almost all of its starters from last season, Duffield still is coaching a relatively young team. Three seniors and five juniors lead a squad that also has 13 sophomores and 11 freshmen. Many of those younger players, such as freshman forward/midfielder Kara Bowser, are starting or making significant contributions.

“I wouldn't say we have the most experienced lineup,” Duffield said. “I have a lot of respect for last year's coach. I have high expectations. I think we can come in second in the section and make a good run in the playoffs.”

Paul Kogut is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at pkogut@tribweb.com or 724-224-2696.

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