One of Pine-Richland's top girls soccer players looks at last season as “a rebuilding year.”
The Rams' coach has been looking forward to this season for a long time.
Buoyed by one of the deepest and most talented senior classes the Rams have ever had, Pine-Richland was off to a strong start at 5-1 heading into a game against Hampton on Monday night — Pine-Richland lost, 1-0, to the Section 2-AAA rival to fall to 5-2 overall and 1-2 in section play.
“It's been a strong (graduating class), and it's been a large group in numbers since they were little,” said Jodi Chmielewski, the coach for the past 15 seasons. “We've known it was a strong group coming up through. A lot of them were able to get quality minutes as a sub or starter on varsity since their freshman year. They're seasoned veterans with playoff experience.”
Just two years ago, Pine-Richland was a WPIAL Class AAA semifinalist and PIAA quarterfinalist in a 19-4 season. The Rams went 12-6-1 and lost in the first round of the playoffs last season with a predominantly underclassman roster.
“I feel like last year was almost a rebuilding year, and this year we're just fine-tuning things,” senior defender Lauren Keenan said. “We learned a lot and have everything set in place now, so we're just making sure what works the best and things like that.”
Keenan, fellow team co-captain Lexi Hurt, Tori Sauers and Brenna Budd form a senior core on the back line — although Budd has not played this season due to injury, and Sauers did not play last season because of an injury.
Lydia Sargent, who had a team-high 21 goals during the regular season last year, and Rams co-captain Olivia Brandy entered the season as senior returnees on the front line. Senior Haley Wessel was an all-section keeper last year, and midfielder Tess Drotar is another senior returning starter.
Hannah Vernetti is a senior midfielder who did not play due to injury over the season's first two weeks.
“I think having that many seniors really helps us play well together,” Keenan said. “These four years we've been able to see how each other plays and what works best in working together. I think that really helps, and the experience we've had definitely does, too.”
Underclassmen in the starting lineup include junior center midfielder Maria Ciarrocca, sophomore center midfielder Catherine Eichenlaub and junior outside midfielder Maggie Shope.
Sophomore Katie Graszl and junior Marisa Hombosky have been alternating filling in for Budd on the back line.
“This is a group that's experienced success before, so the standard is set, and the bar is set pretty high on what we want to accomplish this year,” Chmielewski said. “The key is keeping that competitive edge throughout the long season and what is a very competitive section schedule.”
The Rams learned that the hard way when they lost their Section 2-AAA opener, 3-2, at North Allegheny on Sept. 10. The defeat came after opening their season with three impressive nonsection victories.
Section foes North Allegheny, Seneca Valley and Hampton are off to strong starts, but the Rams still are aiming high this season.
“I think this team definitely can contend for a WPIAL title,” Chmielewski said.
When asked what the Rams' goal was, Keenan said, “To go all the way. And I think everyone on this team realizes we're completely capable of doing that. I don't think we want anything less than that.”
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