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Girls’ Soccer Preview: Loaded Tigers look to defend state title

by Joey Crandall

What does one even say?

The Douglas girls’ soccer program is the defending 4A state champion.

It returns an entire starting lineup, along with a trio of solid players off the bench from last year’s squad.

Seven of the returnees were all-league honorees last year.

The entire defensive unit, which posted 13 shutouts and allowed just 18 goals in 26 games, is intact.

On offense, 12 players scored goals last year and eight of those return, including five of the six leading scorers. All told, the returning players scored 57 of the team’s 77 goals last year.

Of 33 assists, 25 were accounted for by returning players, including their top four leaders in the category.

Their opponent in last year’s regional championship game, South Tahoe, has been cut out of the league after NIAA realignment.

On top of all that, the bulk of the highly-successful Carson Valley Net Rippers squad, that has been together for more than eight years in one form or another, has been united at the varsity level.

“The Net Rippers have kind of reassembled for the varsity team and that means a lot of the girls will be able to go back into their natural niches,” Douglas coach Lorraine Fitzhugh said. “They just have such a strong soccer foundation to build on.

“The newcomers will fight and fit in very well. You really just get bowled over with how high-end they are as a group.”

Yes, things are looking pretty good for the Lady Tigers heading into 2010.

“You can’t sugar-coat it or gloss over it for them,” Fitzhugh said. “They are the team to beat and people out there are calling them the team to beat. That puts a big target on our backs.

“We’re focusing on how to handle that. We have to focus on the game at hand, do the best we can in that game, and the sum of that will hopefully add up to a very successful season for us.”

But that’s not to say in the least that the rest of the state is just going to hand over the regional and state crowns right now.

Galena, the only remaining 4A team to defeat Douglas last year, returns the bulk of its roster from last year’s state runner-up finish, including standout Sarah Lancaster and Carson appears loaded for a solid year, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Reed is always strong on the High Desert side and Spanish Springs and McQueen could be on the verge of breakout seasons.

“We talked about the turning point last year, which was when we went up to Galena early in the year and lost,” Fitzhugh said. “We started talking about facing up to the challenge and embracing it. Becoming a better player by elevating your game and striving to overcome you challenges.

“After that they never turned back. They embrace and look forward to the pressure. They enjoy it. We talk about how people are talking about us and how we are going to get the best game out of everyone we see. It’s up to us to respond to that and give them our best games in return.”

Perhaps the scariest thing about Douglas’ lineup for opponents is that the large majority of the roster is still made up of juniors — most of whom already have two years starting experience under their belts.

The trick this year will be working in a talented group of underclassmen to the rotation.

Fitzhugh brought eight new players up to varsity with the intention of grooming some for the future and expecting others to make a direct impact in the starting lineup.

“We’re treating this season as a mentorship year,” Fitzhugh said. “This group of upperclassmen has had so much success, we want them to start passing that on to the younger ones and helping guide them. I think they’ll meet the mentorship roles whole-heartedly.

“It’s about passing on a legacy. They take a lot of pride in what they’ve established, but they’re realizing they have to teach the younger group to pick. We are very deep as a team.”

Deep, and talented. Competition, Fitzhugh said, is open at nearly every spot on the field.

The offseason only helped enhance that. Instead of being content with the idea of returning such a large number of impact players from the state title squad, the Tigers went out individually during the club season with the intention of getting better against the best competition they could find.

Eight players ventured to Reno for an elite travelling club squad and found themselves playing for a national title (yes, national) in Virginia last month.

Despite falling in the national championship match, the experience gained was invaluable.

“I believe so much in these girls’ ability to play,” Fitzhugh said. “The older group knows they are free to play. They just come in with so much experience, they know how to use their creativity and really enjoy the game.

“They learn from their mistakes, they make very few mistakes and that has shown especially since they came back from that tournament. What am I really going to tell them as a coach? If there’s something they’re having trouble with, they can come to me for that, but on the whole they have a high enough soccer IQ to where they don’t need me dictating the entire game from the sidelines.

“It’s a real luxury.”

The assorted offensive weaponry Fitzhugh will have on hand is nothing short of impressive – juniors Katie Dry (23 career goals and 13 assists) and Tia Lyons (27 goals, 10 assists) will both be chasing school and state records over the next two seasons – but the success of this year’s squad will start with the defense.

Junior goalkeeper Brianna Randall comes in with 16 shutouts and 265 saves in two seasons of work. She is in line for both the school and state 4A career shutout records (30) and already tied the season record last year at 13, but she will be pushed by freshman keeper Courtney McKimmey.

“Courtney comes with an amazing background,” Fitzhugh said. “She’s played competitively outside of the state and is considered a select player. It shows, she is a well-rounded player in the goal as well as on the field.

“She and Brianna will go toe-to-toe all year long. Size-wise, they are different players but both are high-level keepers. It’s one position where things aren’t decided. Bri is bigger and stronger than the years past. They’ll have to earn it.”

Whoever starts in net will have the entire starting defense back with juniors Holly Downer, Erica Macias, and Shannon Hubbard set to play. Cora Moody, the unit’s other returning starter, will shift up to the center midfield slot.

Dry and defensive midfielders Shannon Prinz and Natalie Freitas also figured into the mix through last year’s success and Sierra Bertelone-Smith and April Hoogendijk saw significant time there as well.

“Shannon Prinz is showing up very strong,” Fitzhugh said. “Her whole game has shined during the summer. She’s just a very intense competitor.”

Macias will miss some time to start the year with an injured ankle and Freitas broke her wrist which will keep her out for a few weeks. Fitzhugh said newcomers Allison Chambon and Aspen Abbott, Lacey Marsh, Kelsey Mehrer and Kelly Tompkins will see time on defense as well.

The fluid and often relentless offensive attack will generally start in the back and cycle through different combinations of the forwards and midfielders, including Lyons and Dry, seniors Alex Laing (27 goals, 20 assists), Jessica Vega (7 goals, 6 assists) and Lexi Weaver, who scored four goals after being called up from junior varsity late last season. Downer also moved up from the defensive end with relative frequency, scoring 10 goals to go with two assists last year.

Laing is also out with a knee injury to start the year, but Abbott, Kaitlyn Varble, Cara Dunkleman are expected to get in on the offensive attack as well after solid seasons at the junior varsity level.

“We have flexibility and depth on offense as well,” Fitzhugh said. “Shannon Prinz can run on the wings, Aspen Abbott can slide in at multiple spots on the field, Kaitlyn has amazing vision, she is a central midfield type and Cara Dunkleman gives us good speed on the wings too.”

“It’s a bigger roster, but the new kids earned the right to be here,” Fitzhugh said. “They were playing at such a high level, that we know we are grooming for the future but they’ll also be in competition for starting spots as well.

“There is a lot of internal competition, but there is a need for that mentorship to, just as the newcomers adjust to the varsity level. We’ve got three returners out with injuries now, so the depth will be very important.

“Because the level is so high, we can rest people as we need to, which will be very valuable as the year goes on.”

Douglas opens its season this weekend at the Galena Preseason Tournament, an event the Tigers have won the past two seasons. From there, they jump right into conference games, starting with powerhouse Reed next Tuesday night in Minden.

Joey Crandall can be reached at (775) 782-5121, ext. 212.