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'Bridging the gap' Highlands girls' soccer catchphrase

| Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, 12:46 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Highlands senior Hannah Ross (right) advances the ball during practice Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, at Highlands High School.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Highlands girls soccer junior Samantha Kovach kicks the ball during practice at Highlands High School in Harrison on Monday, August 26, 2013.

Highlands soccer players Danielle Voytko and Hannah Ross laughed at a recent practice when they heard what second-year coach Mark Duffield suggested is possible for the team this season.

Contending with Mars, the four-time defending WPIAL Class AA champion?

Their uneasy chuckles suggested they were skeptics. But after some thought, they deemed the idea less absurd than when they joined the team.

“I think it's more attainable this year,” Ross said with a shrug.

While Highlands might not knock off the Class AA's perennial power, it's likely to continue the progress the program has enjoyed since it ended a 14-year playoff drought in 2011. The Golden Rams, 15-4 overall and 12-2 in Section 2-AA last season, lost three starters, and a gifted freshman class bolstered the lineup.

“I think the program has come along by leaps and bounds,” Duffield said. “I definitely feel we have strength and depth, arguably even more than last year's team.

“(The goal) is bridging the gap between us and Mars,” he said of the section rival. “I think on any given day, the Highlands girls can beat anyone.”

Voytko, Ross and juniors Taylor Cochran and Valerie Artman comprise a defense that slightly humbled Mars a year ago. The Lady Planets left Highlands on Sept. 12 with a 4-0 win. Four goals ultimately tied for the lowest total Mars managed in its regular-season wins.

Considerable credit for that performance belonged to goaltender Samantha Kovach, who returns to the lineup as a junior.

Kovach, who missed two games because of a concussion, gave Highlands an X-factor on the goal line. The Golden Rams finished with nine shutouts and allowed two goals or fewer in five other games.

“I'm sort of looking forward to 10 or 11 (shutouts) this year,” Kovach said.

Junior Elise Signorella and sophomore Kayla Beale return as scoring threats at forward, and sophomore Kara Bowser steadies a midfield unit that suffered the greatest turnover.

Another playoff-qualifying team prone to winning through defense is Riverview. The Lady Raiders, who went 9-9-1 overall and 7-5 in Section 4-A, allowed five goals in their wins and 52 in their losses. Eight seniors, all either starters or key subs, graduated, but coach Andrew Kariotis found the talents of his freshmen encouraging.

“The seniors thought we'd kind of be doomed because of how many girls we lost, but the younger girls coming in have really stepped up,” Kariotis said. “The freshmen are more advanced than I expected.”

Freshmen Erin Joyce, Erin Smith and Mackenzie Lauff are among the promising newcomers — the latter two are defenders. They'll look to seniors Niomi Phillips (defender) and Victoria Tibbens (forward) as well as juniors Tessa Favo (midfielder) and Gina Santoriello (goalie) for leadership.

Opponents certainly will keep an eye on sophomore midfielder Nikki Polens, who scored 11 goals and had five assists.

Freshmen made up almost half of the roster a season ago at Springdale (9-11, 7-5), which tied Riverview for third place in Section 4-A and advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals. Though disadvantageous at the time, that youth should pay off for the Dynamos this season.

“Last year was the season of the deer in the headlights,” coach Jerry Concannon said, “because you had to put some of those freshmen on the field. I think that (uneasiness) is gone now.”

Senior captains Alex Gradwell (defender), Brittany Smajda (outside midfielder) and Emma Whelan (forward) will lead Springdale, which graduated five players but returned a group that shows the potential to return to the semifinals, a round the Dynamos reached from 2007 through 2011.

“We're not trying to get half of the team up to speed,” Concannon said. “There should be much less of a learning curve.”

Plum (9-7-2, 6-4-2 in Section 3-AAA), which qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2002, will look to start a playoff streak. And Valley (3-15, 0-14 in Section 2-AA) is coming off a season in which it ended a 96-game losing streak.

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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