By TIM BIRNEY
Valley Sports Report
ATHENS — After leading Athens to its first District 4 since 2000, coach Rich Pitts said his team is focused on repeating in 2019.
“Our expectations is to win a district title.
“Maybe it’s a little cocky, and that’s OK, but at the end of the year we want to be able to say ‘and still the district champs,” said Pitts. “Winning district titles is something we’ve talked about every year since I got here, and this year it’s a little more front of mind.
“The girls still believe they have something to prove, and that people don’t respect them,” noted Pits. “We went to Hughesville (for a scrimmage) and didn’t feel respected even coming in as district champs.
“Count us out, make us underdogs, we’ll take it all day long,” added Pitts.
(Athens opens its season Saturday at the Montoursville Tournament, playing South Williamsport in the opening round at 10 a.m.)
A year after graduating the majority of his defense, Pitts returns senior Madisyn Joslyn at goal keeper, as well as senior Bailey Dakos and Haley Chambers on the outside, and senior Avery Priester and sophomore Caydence Macik at center backs
Junior Hannah Blackman will start at holding-defensive mid.
“Our defense has played together,” said Pitts. “We lost Brooke (Warner), but that just allows me to push Bailey (Dakos) outside where she’s way more comfortable.
“Caydence Macik is a basketball and softball player, but she’s big and strong, and her feet are really good for soccer not being her main sport,” noted Pitts. “(Haley) Priester has nailed down her spot. She’s done a great job.
“And, Haley (Chambers) is one of the best defenders in the league.
“With three seniors and one sophomore, a senior in goal, and Hannah Blackman, I feel pretty good about our defense — it’s a pretty veteran crew,” Pitts added.
Junior Emma Roe and freshman Ally Thoman will start at center-mids.
“(Ally Thoman) will play in Rachel Hutchison’s spot,” said Pitts. “We like her a lot. She is a lot like Emma Roe, and will remind you of Roe when she was a freshman.
“We lost Rachel in the middle, but Emma Roe has been out of this world,” added Pitts. “We lost a Division I player, but if there’s not a Division I team looking at (Roe), they’re crazy because she is energetic and has ‘it’ — her feet are so good.”
Senior Abby SIndoni will play up top, while sophomore Hannah Walker will play left-wing, and seniors Krista Manning and Sam Markle will both play right wing
“(Manning and Markle) will platoon … both bring great energy and skill,” Pitts said.
Pitts also believes he has four quality players coming off his bench.
Senior Maddie Shultz will see time up top, while sophomore Lexy Miller will see time at center-mid.
“(Shultz) has worked on her game a lot over the summer, and she gives us good depth up top.
“I like Lexy a lot,” said Pitts. “She has really good feet, and sees the field well. She is going to get tons of minutes for us.”
Freshman Taegan Williams will see time at outside back and / or outside wing, while freshman Taylor Fisher will see time on the wing.
“I like (Teagan’s) speed, she’s very aggressive, and has good size for a soccer player,” said Pitts.
“And (Taylor) has a really nice right foot, sees the ball pretty well, and she covers ground.”
The Lady Wildcats lost a combined 65 goals and 26 assist with the graduation of Rachel Hutchison, who will be playing soccer at Division I St. Bonaventure, and Ariana Gambrell, who will run Division I track & field at Bucknell, so some might think scoring could be an issue, but don’t count Pitts among them.
“I thought we might struggle to find the net this season, but then we got off the bus at Hughesville, and then again Tuesday in Elmira for scrimmages … we’re going to score some goals,” said Pitts.
“We’re going to be different, but I actually think we play with more pace,” he noted. “You wouldn’t think that after losing Rachel (Hutchison) and Ari (Gambrell) because they have great speed, but I think our overall speed got better.
“Abby Sindoni is a great goal-scorer. She’s got great touch, and she looks 100 percent healthy — like her sophomore season,” he said. “Krista Manning has great speed, and Hannah Walker plays regionally, is very fast, and has a hammer for a left foot.
“And Emma (Roe) and Ally Thoman are fast, and aggressive, and can put the ball in the net,” Pitts added.
Team speed, reiterated Pitts, is a major strength for the Wildcats.
“We like to play on our front foot a lot, and I think this group as a whole is going to allow us to do it all over the field.
“There’s not one player that teams are going to be able to key in on,” said Pitts. “Last year in the Districts, teams marked Rachel and Ari, and the other girls could step up and play, but not to the extent that we can this year.
“We are dangerous all over the field. We have five or six girls who can put the ball in the net on a consistent basis,” added Pitts. “I think teams are going to have a hard time dealing with us on the offensive end. When we get into their half, I think it’s going to be a struggle for them to contain us.”
Pitts struggled to find a weakness with this team, but said replacing Hutchison could be one.
“Replacing Rachel will be tough,” he said. “Emma (Roe) does a good job, but Ally (Thoman) is a freshman. She’s going to have growing pains, just like Hutchison did.
“If there’s a concern, I would say it’s her hitting that freshman wall at some point, because I put a lot of pressure on that position, but she’s been really good at handling it.
“Emma and Hannah have been doing a great job in the middle of the field bringing her along because it’s not a natural position for her,” he noted.
“The other secondary concern is the same one you always have — if you have some injuries, do you have the depth to carry you through until those players get back?” added Pitts.
AROUND THE NTL
“Troy is always the team we talk about,” said Pitts. “When you have (Nicole) McClellan up top, you are going to be dangerous. Having the veteran defense we have this year helps us, but if she gets free, she’s going to score some goals. Troy is always our threat, and my biggest worry.
“Towanda is going to be tough under Joe Picco, he turned them around quickly last year,” noted Pitts. “They have some talented players, and are not a team to take lightly.
“Wellsboro lost its big goal-scorer, and I think that hurts them, but their coach does a great job, so I think they’re always going to be in the mix.
“Sayre’s numbers may be down, but they have Roz (Haney) and Abby Moliski,” added Pitts. “I think the lack of numbers hurts them, but you can’t count them out. If you have Roz Haney staring you down with the ball at her feet, you better defend it well, or it’s going in the back of the net.”
LOOKING AHEAD TO DISTRICTS
“Any of the three teams from the Heartland — Shik, Mifflinburg or Selinsgrove — will be tough, and are are the teams we’ll keep an eye on throughout the course of the season,” said Pitts. “They play in a touch conference, and that battle tests them.
“I don’t think any game is going to be easy once we get into Districts, but we like our chances,” he added. “I like our team right now, and we can only get better.”
IN PHOTO: Athens’ Abby Sindoni (left) and Emma Roe.
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