Seneca Valley keeper steady in net for top-ranked Raiders
In three seasons as the starting goalie for the Seneca Valley Lady Raiders varsity soccer team, all Jess Neill has done was play her best in the biggest games. In arguably one of the toughest sections in girls soccer that includes powerhouse North Allegheny and perennial playoff contenders in Pine-Richland and Hampton, Neill has boasted a 32-2-2 record against section competition.
That feat impresses head coach Dave Sylvester.
“Jess is a phenomenal player and good kid,” Sylvester said. “She really works hard.”
Seneca Valley enters the WPIAL playoffs as the No. 1 seed in Class AAA.
Neill's play is impressive, especially when one considers how short of a time frame she has been in net for the team.
“I was a forward until my freshman year,” Neill said. “Our keeper got hurt on my club team, so I moved to goal.”
Not only has she continued to improve each game during that time, she has no aspirations of leaving her current position preventing goals to go back to scoring them.
“Playing softball too, my hand-eye coordination is good, so that helps me in goal,” Neill said. “I have to give credit to the team in front of me, too. They are there for me.”
By her admission, Neill said facing shots early and periodically throughout the game helps her stay focused. She said it could get boring back there when her team keeps the ball in the opposing zone.
“Playing in goal takes a lot of mental preparation,” Neill said. “I have to make sure I am in the right spots to cut down the angles. If you are not in position, physical skills won't help you.”
With her positioning often being on point, Neill has good physical skills to complement her soccer IQ.
“Physically, I have to be stronger,” Neill said. “I am short, so I have to be able to jump.”
Neill also serves as a director of the defense, something that she had to take a more active role in without a veteran defender in front of her. With many younger players seeing significant time on defense, Neill said she relies on Alicia Hart, another junior, to help her with communication and direction.
“It's important to be nice to your teammates,” Neill said. “We all have bad games, and you have to understand what it takes to get better.”
Senior Marykate Zahorchak said that having a former forward as a goalie helps in so many facets of the game.
“Jess has saved us in so many games, she stops some shots that seem unpreventable,” Zahorchak said. “She is so smart, she tells us what to do and is just awesome. We would not be where we are without her.”
Despite the large amounts of wins on her resumé, Neill said it might be the loss last year in the WPIAL finals that was her finest showing.
“Even though we lost, I felt it was my best game,” Neill said. “At one point, the game was tied and I stopped repeated shots, high, low, in the corner. … I was really proud of that.”
Before big games, Neill reflects on a quote from her coach. She said it helps her put things in perspective.
“The game does not know it is important, it is you that makes it important,” Neill said. “Making the playoffs means a lot, but we have to remember it is still just another game.”
Jerry Clark is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-779-6979 or firstname.lastname@example.org.