After a team graduates 10 seniors, it would be unexpected for the team to feel more in sync coming into the next season.
If that team went 2-13-1 the previous season, a sense of optimism would be even more unexpected.
But with a returning second-year coach and a “Next Woman Up” mentality, that’s exactly how members of the Keene High girls’ soccer team describe their situation, as they prepare for their 2019 campaign. The season begins with a Sept. 4 home game against Dover at 4 p.m.
“I think the team’s a lot closer already,” said senior midfielder Isabelle Fleuette. “Playing out there, we all feel really connected. I think we’re all commenting on how well we’re playing together, how good our chemistry is already, so I think we’re all really optimistic going into this season, because it already feels really different.”
The increased level of trust and connection amongst the team begins at the top, with Coach Kaleb Lique Naitove. With a full season now under his belt, the head honcho now has a stronger connection with his team, according to both coach and players.
“We all feel a lot more comfortable this year. I think we know him a lot better,” Fleuette said. “I think that helps us to play better, because when you trust your coach, you listen to him more because there’s not the hesitancy anymore.”
“I think in general it just takes time between the coach and athletes to build the trust,” Naitove said. “I know this offseason I got to work with some of the group, have meetings and kind of build that chemistry, so we didn’t lose our momentum from the first season.”
While many of the Blackbirds’ varsity starters from last year have moved on, there are still nine regulars returning, like offensive middie Fleuette and key defender Emily Richardson, both seniors. In addition, about eight swing players — who practiced with the varsity squad but mostly played jayvee last year — are also moving up to play bigger positions on a team that still has a strong veteran presence, with 15 upperclassmen.
“We are definitely ‘next woman up,’ ” Naitove said. “All of them besides a few have seen reps at the varsity level, so they’re ready to go.”
But while there are zero freshmen and only two sophomores on this year’s rosters, those two underclassmen still have sizable expectations on them this season.
Elyza Mitchell figures to be an important offensive middie again after a solid freshman season, and Tess Chamberlin, who spent most of last year with the jayvee squad, is expected to be a big part of the defense.
“[Mitchell] has big shoes to fill,” Naitove said. “She did play a lot of defense last year, but we’re gonna try her in a new role. She’s also gonna play up top with probably Isabelle, and I think she’s ready for it.”
“I think Tess Chamberlin actually has done a really good job,” Richardson added. “She came to Keene State soccer camp and she did really well, and she’s been doing really well in this preseason as well.”
Offense was an issue for the Blackbirds, who averaged 0.56 goals per game and suffered eight shutout losses. But Fleuette said the players are developing better timing on their passes, adding to the theme of increased chemistry.
“I think we all just do trust each other more,” Fleuette said. “I think last year, sometimes people were hesitant to pass at times, there was a lot of competition between people, which is needed at times, but I think this year it’s more of a positive influence to get us to connect more, push each other to do better.”
The defense gave up 3.38 goals per game last year, and often fell back on athletic keeper Mayzie Hunter, who recorded multiple double-digit-save games in her final high school season. With Hunter gone, the Birds now turn to junior Grace Hauser, who was the backup goalie last season.
“Very good, technical keeper; gets her hands to a lot of balls,” Naitove said. “We’re looking for her to be our anchor. I know we’ve been looking for a solid keeper for a couple years now, and I think she’s ready for it.”
With this greater feeling of unity and optimism among the team, the goal is obvious for Naitove and co.: Improve from a two-win team to one that can make the playoffs.
“I think the goal is always to be a playoff team, and I know that we’re capable of that,” Naitove said. “I think if we get some results early on, that momentum’s gonna carry.”