Despite winning 21 of its 23 games in 2013, what the Archbishop Ryan girls soccer team remembers most about how last season ended is the quiet dejection.
The Ragdolls have not forgotten the disappointment or the sour, bitter taste it left in their mouths; in fact, they’ve had nine months to think about it, to the point where it’s seared into their grey matter, a dangerous prospect for the rest of the league that Ryan has owned the last two seasons.
After vanquishing archnemesis Archbishop Wood to win the program’s second straight Catholic League title, and fourth in nine years under head coach Ryan Haney, the Ragdolls took their foot off the gas and were unceremoniously bounced from the first round of the PIAA Class AAA state playoffs by Central Bucks East. A young, loaded team with such promise ended its campaign with a ‘snakebitten’ effort, as Haney put it at the time.
“We all remember how it felt to lose that game,” said junior Taylor Woods, who scored the championship-winning goal against Wood in double overtime as a sophomore. “The bus ride home, it was just completely silent.”
The early 2013 exit was all the Ragdolls could talk about during Monday’s first day of practice heading into the 2014 season, and a group with so many returning stars is aiming to rectify past shortcomings this time around. Having graduated just two starters from last year’s team that went 21-2 — forward Briana Egenlauf and right fullback Taylor Adair — it’s safe to say Haney’s group has its eyes fixed solely on a much-bigger prize.
“I’m in a pretty unique situation, as far as returning players go,” Haney said. “We want to keep ourselves healthy and put ourselves in a place to make a run at the state championship. The Catholic League, sometimes they think that’s the end-all, be-all, but we’ve got great athletes, maybe six to seven girls being recruited to play at the Division-I level. There’s no reason why we can’t compete at the state level and do something different for the school. The league, that’s important … but it’s just the first goal.”
And this is by no means a putting-the-cart-before-the-horse scenario. In a league as good as the Catholic League, Haney and company know nothing will be handed to them simply based on past successes. At the same time, the Ryan players know full well what it takes to win in this league, and they have no plans on letting up their intensity level; if anything, the focus is fiercer than ever.
“For us, we’re ready to do the impossible,” said senior sweeper Kaitlyn McFadden, an All-Catholic and All-State selection a year ago who will play her college soccer at West Chester. “It’s definitely motivation given how last year ended, and for me at least, it’s my last shot at it. We don’t want to have that feeling anymore of ending our season with a loss. We like to challenge ourselves and set big goals.”
“Every year we want to get a little farther, so we try to set our goals a little higher,” echoed senior goalkeeper Jazmin Gonzalez, who recently committed to Charleston Southern University. “We want to be the Catholic League team that makes it far in states. At the same time, we realize everyone wants to beat our team because of the success we’ve had. We realize those accomplishments don’t matter now. If we don’t stay calm, cool and collected, it could be a whole different outcome.”
If McFadden, Gonzalez and the rest of the team stay healthy and play to their usual capabilities, there’s no reason to believe the team should fall short of another league title in 2014. Gonzalez is a shutout machine and, after posting 14 a year ago, is closing in on the school record of 49 set by Nicki Sinclair; she and McFadden, who have been club soccer teammates since they were 8 years old, were a major reason why the stingy Ragdolls allowed just 11 goals in 23 games in 2014 while scoring 85 of their own.
“This year, we don’t want to let up any goals,” McFadden said, half-jokingly but also half-matter of factly.
“A shutout every game,” reinforced Gonzalez, her partner-in-crime. “No goals.”
It’s a team that thinks big, and why wouldn’t it? After winning the title in 2012, the 2013 Ragdolls proved to be an offensive machine dominated largely by two sophomores — Woods, who had 16 goals and a team-leading 14 assists, and Jules Blank, an All-State selection who led the Ragdolls with 20 goals stacked against 10 assists.
Other key returnees include midfielder Casey Rodgers and fullback Tayah Naudascher, who said a strong team chemistry will again be a key determining factor in how far the Ragdolls will go this season.
“We all get along really well, and I think you see that when we’re out on the field,” Naudascher said. “We boost each other’s confidence. We’ve moved up the ladder together, and I think as a result we’ve gotten better as a whole.”
Haney said Blank and McFadden were nursing nagging injuries that were remnants from their club seasons, and although the two were limited participants in practice on day one, it won’t be anything to slow them down when the season starts in a few weeks.
“Even after one day, to see how much everyone has improved over the offseason is awesome,” Blank said. “This year, I think we’ll be especially in sync. It’s annoying for us to think about how we lost in the first round of states the last two seasons; everybody has their eyes on the prize. It’s what we’ve thought about all summer … all year, really.
“We saw against Wood how it all came down to one play. On any given day, anyone can win. Every game is pretty close. It comes down to who’s more fit, who wants it more and who can put the ball in the back of the net. There’s a reason for everything. These girls, they’ve been here before, and we want to finish it with a state title.”
And despite the fact that the Ragdolls are already talking state title in mid-August, they aren’t getting ahead of themselves at all.
“It’s about stepping up and getting past where we were,” Naudascher said. “It sucks to get all that way only to lose. It kind of felt like all the work we did was for nothing. We won the Catholic League twice, and we know full well that if we want to reach our ultimate goal, then it starts with winning that again. It’s never easy, but we want to go farther and make a bigger name for our school.”
Haney certainly has the horses in his stable to make a deep run in November. As he enters his 10th training camp as the program’s head coach, he said he’s just as excited as ever to get the ball rolling in 2014.
“I told my wife last night that it’s my tenth season and it’s still like Christmas morning to me,” Haney said. “This is a special group, and I’m more excited than I’ve ever been. I want to bring them on slowly, but it’s almost like holding back a pitbull. When you put them on the field, they stand out. If the pieces fall into the right place, things can happen. They can win a state championship.
“As a coach, I’m always asking, ‘How do I prepare them for it? How can I challenge them?’ I’ve used some harsh words to talk them down a bit in order to build them back up. It’s a matter of changing their mindset. We want to win the Catholic League, yeah, but we want to win it, get our plaque, walk off and be ready to go win the state tournament.” ••