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Trial by fire turns into firepower for Concord girls’ soccer team

The outlook was bleak for the Concord High School girls’ soccer team at this point last season. The Crimson Tide had holes to fill, left by 10 graduating seniors, and the prospect of a difficult rebuilding season following a trip to the Division I final loomed as inexperienced players tried to learn on the go.

What had the potential to be a lapse back into mediocrity was instead a blessing in disguise. Concord still had a solid season, going 8-7-3 and reaching the state quarterfinals.

Even better, the trial by fire produced a crop of varsity-ready players, setting the Crimson Tide up for a return to the top of the pack this season.

“I think this year, I have similar feelings to the way I did two years ago when we went to the state championship,” Coach Bill Nardino said. “Going into that preseason I knew what we had, and we just went forward. But this year, I was surprised with the players that made the team. I think we might be better than even I anticipated.”

The reason for optimism on Nardino’s part is Concord’s depth. The Crimson Tide, in one year, went from scrambling to fill spots to having a talented roster from the first name to the last. New players last year gained experience and Concord has a strong incoming freshman class, leaving Nardino with a list of players he can trust in any given situation.

“Having lost so many seniors, there were definitely growing pains going into that year. … This year, those growing pains and learning experiences have turned into confidence,” he said. “I think we’re probably deeper with this year’s team than we had been in all of the years I’ve been with the high school. Now we’ve got some players on the bench that would start for other schools.”

The freshmen have made an impression this preseason, with a pair even climbing into the starting lineup. Ellie Pope (forward) and Gillian Bennett (midfield) will open the season as starters, while Delana Erickson (defense) and Jess Nelson (midfield) will handle depth roles, though Nardino said he still expects them to log significant minutes during the year.

“All four of them are good players, and throughout the year I’m sure (they) will get starts for us,” he said. “It’s going to take a while for them to click. Once they do, we’re going to be dangerous. … It may not take us as long as some teams.”

They will boost a roster that has talent throughout the field. On defense, seniors Rachel Stevenson and Molly Zollo will start along with juniors Bella Rubin and Kiersten Klose, while junior Katherine Muzzey and Erickson will provide the backup. In the midfield, Bennett’s joined in the starting ranks by seniors Eliza Bunnell and Kate Dasey, with senior Amanda Bryant, junior Irene Ireme and Nelson filling supporting roles.

On offense, Pope will be joined by senior Caroline Andy (one of three returning captains, along with Dasey and Zollo) and senior Danielle Rossetti, while seniors Claudia Roy and Adelaide Symmes and sophomore Emily Proctor will supply depth off the bench. Making the starting lineup was an especially sweet victory for Rossetti, who tore her ACL in the second game of the season last year.

“That’s almost like getting a new player,” Nardino said.

If there is a question mark for Concord, it’s in net, where the team will be going with its third starting keeper in three years. This year, the duties fall to senior Becky Weld, and Nardino said she’s ready for the job after two years as an understudy.

“She’s now sat behind Rachel Robertson (in 2011) and Diamond (Chaplin, in 2012). She’s had an opportunity to grow, and not rush into things,” he said. “She’s looking forward to it. She’s excited about being the starter this season.”

As Weld grows on the job, she’ll be aided by a team in front of her that won’t have to deal with mismatches throughout the game. Part of being an inexperienced team last year, Nardino said, was that there were times in which the Tide was at a disadvantage when younger players came on the field during substitutions. It’s a different story this time.

“If I had to rank (the players), my 19th player would be the same as my eighth player,” he said. “There’s that kind of consistency.”

The question becomes where that consistency could bring the Tide. The target is certainly higher than last year’s just-over-.500 result, and Nardino isn’t capping the team’s potential short of a return to the semifinals – maybe even getting a chance to battle again with four-time defending champion Exeter, which has ousted Concord from the playoffs the last two seasons.

“We’re just a lot deeper this year than we have been,” he said. “If we have a bad game from a few players, we can just pull them aside and plug someone else in. Hopefully, that will get us through some close games.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or abonifant@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @dbonifant.)

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