Valley Catholic reloading for 4A title run

TIMES FILE PHOTO - Valley Catholic incoming senior Reilly Blood enters her fourth year as a varsity starter for the two-time defending champion Valiants this season.

Some of the stars might be gone, but the objective remains the same for the two-time defending state champion Valley Catholic girls soccer team.

State championships are understood as the expectation, not the exception, to the rule. So, yes the Valiants are retooling with young talent after losing a handful of state-title heroes from 2014 including Sara Connelly, Ella Turkot and Amanda Carrera. But with six seniors returning — all of whom have played in three state championship games — as well a talented freshmen foursome that will see the field early, and a handful of youthful returners, head coach Kayla Gaspardis said her program’s primary desire has not wavered.

“I don’t by any means see it as a rebuilding year,” said Gaspardis. “The goal is still to win a state championship and win all of our games we have coming up. Ultimately, that’s what they want to do and what we all want to do. This is a completely different team. We don’t even think about the past. I told our team they’re not allowed to talk about the last state championships because this is a different year.”

Senior Reilly Blood has been a mainstay on the Valiant roster the past three seasons, a fast defender who has found the back of the net in both of Valley’s state title wins. Blood played club soccer during the offseason, practicing four times a week with tournaments on the weekends, which allowed the all-league star to polish her skill set offensively.

“She’s gotten more touches on the ball and you can completely tell in her game,” said Gaspardis. “She seems a lot more confident on the ball. She’s really stepped up as a leader. I told her it’s her job to make sure her level of play on the field stays high. She’s making sure we’re competing hard in practice.”

Sophomore Taylor Menkens played extensively as a freshman in the midfield and will be one of Valley’s top scoring threats, asked to fill some of the void left by Connelly up top.

“I looked at (Blood and Menkens) and said ‘Between the two of you, you guys have to score 50 goals,’ which his what (Connelly and Turkot) did,” said Gaspardis. “They have to find a way to do it differently, but they’ll find ways to do it and be successful.”

Seniors Jesse Beyer, Regan Torres, Meredith Woolverton, Anika Filip and Rachel Jones know nothing but long playoff runs that end at Liberty High, the site of the Class 4A state championship game.

“It’s invaluable experience,” said Gaspardis. “Hopefully, they can pick up the freshmen and take them on the same journey.”

TIMES FILE PHOTO - Valley Catholic incoming sophomore Taylor Menkens projects as one of the Valiants top playmakers this season.

Freshmen Kate Macnaughton, Callie Kawaguchi, Sara Jones and Sophia Herrera are in the mix to start on opening day for the Valiants, who begin their season Sept. 1 at Catlin Gabel. Initially, Gaspardis said the youngsters were apprehensive about suiting up on the varsity level and trying to live up to the standards set before them. Yet, with Blood, Beyer, Torres and Woolverton all sporting three years of varsity time with loads of seasoning and wisdom to pass along to their fresh-faced teammates, the conversion has been relatively hassle-free. Gaspardis said all the freshmen need to do to adjust is play with no fear.

“I told them they can’t be afraid to make mistakes because they’ll make mistakes,” said Gaspardis. “It’s a matter of how they react to that. When they lose a ball, they just have to go win it back. They don’t have to stress about it or spend extra time worrying about it. They’ve all really responded to that. I think they were nervous coming in, but the seniors have really helped them.”

Sophomore Noelle Mannen is taking over for Carrera in between the posts at goalkeeper. Gifted with cat-quick instincts and a willingness to learn and accept coaching, Mannen is frequently on the field early before practice and stays late with teammates, trying to improve.

Mannen was a JV player last year, who rapidly picked up on the intricacies of the position and commandeered the starting job.

“She has great hands and she’s an insane athlete,” said Gaspardis of Mannen. “From the beginning of last year until now is a night-and-day difference. I’m really excited about her. She’s really athletic and learns quickly. She has no fear. I’m excited to see how she develops.”

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