In 2012, the Archbishop Ryan girls soccer team didn’t lose its first game of the season until Nov. 6. It was the Ragdolls’ only blemish of the season, a 1-0 first round state tournament defeat at the hands of Central Bucks West.
The win punctuated a 19-1-1 season that saw Ryan march undefeated toward head coach Ryan Haney’s third Catholic League title in eight years. And as good as it felt to win one of the more challenging leagues in the state without a loss, the 2012 version of the Ragdolls felt the ride had been cut short, like a roller coaster abruptly halting halfway up the hill.
Fast forward nearly a year later. This time around, the Ragdolls lost their first game of the season on Sept. 5, a 1-0 home heartbreaker to league nemesis Archbishop Wood.
More than a month after that defeat, Haney’s group again sits tied atop the Catholic League standings, the Wood loss the lone slip-up in a season that is shaping up to look a lot like the one that preceded it. Only this time, the Ragdolls hope to march unbeaten through the league’s postseason all the way to a state title, as a loss in early September would certainly carry less sting than one in early November.
“Every game means something, and every team comes to play us like it’s their championship,” said junior sweeper Kaitlyn McFadden, who anchors a back line (also featuring flankers Taylor Adair and Tayah Naudascher, as well as junior goalie Jazmin Gonzalez) that has allowed just four goals in 15 games. “So that Wood loss, I guess it was a bad one and good one all at once. It made us better as a team. Since it happened, we’ve become closer as a group. We learned exactly what we needed to improve upon, which was finishing our chances, and I think we’ve done that.”
It’s hard to argue with McFadden’s assessment. Since the early-season loss, the Ragdolls have ripped off 13 straight wins and, as of Tuesday, sat perched atop the Catholic League standings — alongside Wood — with 24 points.
Ryan has needed every one of them. Not only have the Vikings kept pace, but Little Flower, St. Hubert and Lansdale Catholic were all within three points or fewer of first place with just a couple of regular season games left to play. With last year’s team setting the standard for excellence, it hasn’t been as difficult an act for the 2013 Ragdoll group to follow as one might expect.
“You have a bunch of girls around you striving for the same goal, so you never feel alone out there,” said sophomore forward Juliane Blank, who leads the team with 10 goals and 27 points. “A lot of us grew up near each other, playing together on the same club teams. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Each year, we’ve gotten better as a result.”
So much of Ryan’s success is due to the fact that so many young players got thrown right into the fire immediately in 2012; thusly, the emergence of these girls offset the losses of explosive scorers like Brittany Robinson and Scarlett Walsh.
Sophomore midfielder Taylor Woods, third on the team with eight goals and second with 25 points, called the Ragdolls “a team full of moving, interchangeable parts.” While they may no longer have a singular superstar like Walsh whom opponents will spend all game double teaming, they usually do have 11 capable players on the field who collectively complement each other’s strengths. As a result, there’s been more balance in the scoring column: attached to the team’s 52 total tallies are 18 different goal-scorers.
“I think at the beginning we wondered where the offense might come from, but they’ve adapted,” said Haney, now 34-2-1 since the 2012 season began. “Last year, they were content to pass off to Scarlett or Brittany; now, with improved confidence, they know they can make those runs themselves. We start seven sophomores and two juniors right now, and all of them have been in that mix, stepping up as leaders.”
The smothering defense and goaltending have allowed the younger Ragdolls to play looser out there, allowing the offense to come to them. They haven’t scored as much as Wood (20 less goals in league play), but there’s still usually no shortage of chances throughout any given game for Ryan. For the most part, the Ragdolls have cashed in, as their 9:1 goal differential mark in league contests indicates.
“We just went through this all last year, so we know what to expect,” McFadden said. “Every single girl on this team has stepped her game up, and the fact that we’ve all done our jobs well makes up for the fact that we’re a young team. We’re all just really excited. This season has been a privilege.”
Haney himself said the system he had in place from the 2012 group has transferred over without a hitch, or as he put it, “keeping it simple and filling in parts.” Woods has come out of nowhere with her production at center-midfield, the position Walsh manned so well in the past. Because of this, Blank was moved up top alongside senior Briana Egenlauf, and that duo has combined for 19 goals.
“We always stress defense first, because as long as we possess the ball, we know the other team can’t score,” Haney said. “We stress to score one early, then not to give any up. It’s been successful so far, and hopefully we continue it.”
No matter how the season ends, one thing is perfectly clear: with 34 wins and counting since the start of last season, Haney has molded together a special group of talented young winners. The school has rallied around the Ragdolls, with overflow crowds coming out to support the team in some of the schedule’s biggest games. This will certainly play to Ryan’s advantage in the postseason, as both the semifinals and championship game will be played in late October at George Todt Field, which hosts the final two rounds of the girls and boys postseason contests.
“We appreciate the support, and we want to win for the school, for our teammates, for the seniors,” McFadden said.
“They want to win it as much as we do,” Blank added of the team’s many supporters. “You can see it when they show up to the games with signs and shirts and their faces painted. That’s what you play for all year.”
Woods, whose unexpected explosion in the midfield has helped create a ripple effect of variety on the scoresheet, had some poignant thoughts in closing.
“I know everyone says it, but we do feel very much like a family,” she said. “Being a part of this team, it just takes your mind off everything else. For me, Ryan is more of a home away from home than it is a school. We all enjoy coming here to go to work. Not everyone can say they get to be a part of something like this.” ••