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NTL GIRLS SOCCER: PITTS BELIEVES ATHENS WILL COMPETE FOR NTL TITLE DESPITE 'BIT OF RE-BUILD' IN 2020 (2020-09-14)

By TIM BIRNEY
Valley Sports Report
ATHENS — The Lady Wildcats are two-time defending District 4 champs, and have won eight straight NTL titles, but the 2020 version of the Athens girls soccer team looks a little different than in years past.

Athens has graduated four Division I athletes in the last two years, and several other standouts.

“I think we’re a tick under-manned this year, just because we’re young,” said coach Rich Pitts. “If you want to say this is a re-build season, I’m OK with that.

“But, I thought we showed up and played really well in our scrimmage against Wellsboro, and Wellsboro is no joke — they have quality athletes all over the field, and one of the top three strikers in the league in Jenna Boyce.

“I think we’re in a little bit of a re-build, but I’m not worried — I'm confident we'll compete,” added Pitts.

Despite the graduation losses, Pitts says the Wildcats still have a wealth of veteran talent.

“Emma (Roe) and Hannah (Blackman) have led this group since they were freshmen.

“Emma stands out because of her ability, but we couldn’t do a lot of the things we do without Hannah running the show,” said Pitts. “She is is the quarterback of this team, and a coach on the field.

“With Emma and Hannah, I don’t have a lot of worries about our leadership, and obviously there are both top, quality players.

“(Hannah) Walker has a lot of ability, she could go Division I in a couple of years,” continued Pitts. “And Ally Thoman really shined in the District games, especially in the District finals. She’s dangerous, and I think people can lose track of her because she’s so shifty and little.

“I don’t worry too much about how much we’ve lost,” added Pitts. “And, our freshmen are good.”

Pitts is high on his freshman class.

“Our freshman class is really good,” he said. “They’ve really stepped up right off the bat, and all five of them will be on the field.

“I think they realized there are a lot of open spots to be won, so they’ve come in with a little bit of attitude that they want to play. I like it,” added Pitts.

Sophomore Abby Champion will be in net for the Lady Wildcats.

“She’s a good goal-tender,” said Pitts. “She can get the ball, and can punt the ball over half. She’s a quality player. I’m pretty happy we’ll have her for the next three years.”

Junior Hannah Walker will anchor the defense at center-back, with junior Kaylee Grazul right-back, and freshman Abbie Panek at left-back. Junior Mia Robinson will rotate into the back.

“We’re still working on things positionally right now,” said Pitts on Fiday, just three days before the season opener.

Blackman and Roe, and Thoman return to man the center-mids, while sophomores Taylar Fisher and Taegan Williams will be the outside-mids.

Freshman Rachel Jelliff is “pushing for time” in the midfield, and freshman Amber Galvin will also vie for time at outside mid.

Freshmen Mya Thompson and Norah Reid will start at forwards.

“Norah has the pedigree of the Reid family. She’s the last one through, and we’re really happy to have her,” said Pitts. “And, I was really impressed with Mya right off the bat. She has a knack around the net.

“They can both hit the ball with both feet.

“Starting two freshmen up front is taking a little bit of a chance, but I think people are going to be surprised,” added Pitts. “I told both of them I think they could score 20 to 25 goals apiece. If they don’t that’s fine, but they both have the talent to put a lot of goals in the net.”

Sophomore Meltem VanHelden and senior Eva Wood will also get some time up front.

“They both bring a lot of energy,” Pitts said.

Pitts said he does have a couple concerns about his team.

“I would say I’m a little concerned about our defense. We played pretty well defensively against Wellsboro, thought, so it alleviated my fear a little bit.

“And, we are young,” said Pitts. “You saw it with Ally (Thoman) a little bit last year … they hit that freshmen wall ... .

“For me, it’s a lot more about coaching the mental piece of the game with (freshmen) … Emma (Roe), Hannah (Blackman) and (Hannah) Walker have all stepped up and taken those freshmen under their wings and been very good at giving them positive re-enforcement.

“Because we’re young, we’re going to make some mistakes that are going to cost us, but I think we’re still good enough to overcome that stuff,” Pitts added.

The Lady Wildcats have just 12 games on their schedule due to the Covid pandemic, and the status of the District 4 playoffs is up in the air.

“We had a really great non-league schedule this year, so losing that is very disappointing,” said Pitts.

“It’s one day at a time. We try to keep the girls focused on being safe, and doing the right thing because we want to continue the season,” he continued. “We’re going to play every game, until they tell us we don’t have anymore games left.

“The NTL title is important to us — it’s been eight in a row. We’d like to make it nine.

“If they say it’s OK, and we can safely have a postseason, we’ll be ready,” noted Pitts “I think we have to prepare as if there’s going to be a postseason, but we’re just taking it a day at a time, and hoping the plug doesn’t get pulled.

“Mentally, I think we’re ready for anything,” he added.

Pitts believes it will be a challenge for the Lady Wildcats to secure a ninth consecutive league title.

“I don’t think anything is going to be easy for us. We’ve lost some talent, and the other programs in the NTL keep getting stronger.

“Wayne (Pratt) does a great job at Troy, and I have ton of respect for him and his program,” said Pitts.

“Hunter McClellan is the potent one and we have to worry about her, but Emmi Ward does a fantastic job. They also have a couple of travel girls who got minutes as freshmen last year.

“Troy is going to be a battle, and they are probably the team to beat this year,” noted Pitts.

“Roz (Haney) is Roz, she can put the ball in the net. I told the girls the other night when we were talking about Monday, ‘if we’re not ready for her and we give the ball away, it’s going to go in the back of the net.’”

“Sayre is young, and they are going to have to depend on a lot of girls who played junior high last year, but I expect them to be ready, and to try to come in here and beat us” noted Pitts. “Tracy (Mennig) does a great job with that program. I’m happy they have numbers.

“And, Wellsboro always get better as the year goes on.

“I think the NTL is kind of wide-open this year,” added Pitts “It’s been a crazy year, why wouldn’t it be a crazy year in the NTL?”

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IN PHOTO: Athens’ Emma Roe.

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