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Lions battled through injuries from the first match, played NWOC's elite teams tough

TIMES FILE PHOTO - St. Helens girls soccer player Emmah Durant and the Lions scrapped with some of the best teams in the NWOC. When Waylon Nichols attended the St. Helens girls soccer team's match against Liberty back in early October, he couldn't help but notice so many familiar faces on the pitch, ones he's seen for years at various level of youth soccer.

There were the seniors he grew going to school with, surely, but there were sophomores and juniors who he honestly didn't expect to man such prominent roles so early in their careers. Down the road, these budding standouts were supposed to play a part in St. Helens' success and help his mom, Lion head coach Angela Nichols, take the program to another level.

Circumstantially, St. Helens had to accelerate its young core's learning curve while trying to remain competitive. Injuries ravaged the Lion lineup. Some players missed games. Others didn't suit u while key figures played out of position to either avoid further injury or fill a hole vacated by impairment. It was a challenge in the preseason, particularly against bigger Class 6A schools, and continued to be so when Northwest Oregon Conference play began. The good news was the young players getting experience will be back in the years to come. And every abled body on the roster is frankly uninterested in packing in a season that's just about to hit its stride. The Lions ended NWOC play with a 0-6-1 record, yet four of those losses were by three goals or less. Three of those close defeats were by two goals or less. Defensively, St. Helens made tons of headway in stymying high-scoring offenses such as Scappoose, La Salle and Hillsboro. The Lions only scored one league goal, but those will come with time.

TIMES FILE PHOTO - St. Helens senior Anessa Mandella and the Lions made the most of a injury-plagued season and battled in the NWOC. "Being that we're a young team with all of these injuries and obstacles that we've had to overcome, I'm pleased with how the girls stepped up," Nichols said. "We've had some tough games, but this team can step up to the challenge. Even in practices, we might be a little off because of a game that we lost the night before, we've always been able to pull together and play well.

Nichols said this St. Helens team continues to surprise with the way it competes, even when adversity plagues them. The Lions don't let losses linger for long. They're able to compartmentalize defeat and put it in a proper perspective. Against Gresham on Sept. 26, Nichols said St. Helens played its best game of the season, earning a 1-1 draw against the Class 6A school. Going into the match, Nichols could sense her young squad wasn't as confident going in, but played "amazing".

"I honestly think we could've won that game," Nichols said. "I feel like we dominated with passing and possession and we had a lot of shots on goal."

The Gophers' lone goal came on a random breakaway where a speedy Gresham forward ran through three Lion defenders on her own. But St. Helens' score was more to Nichols' liking as the ball flowed from the midfield to senior forward Mackenzie Carlson who passed to junior midfielder Maria Reardon who was helping the Lion attack. Reardon, Nichols said, is more likely to set somebody up than look for her shot. But in this instance, Reardon went to the upper right corner of the goal for the score.

"I think that made her feel more confident and hopefully she'll shoot more often," Nichols said with a smile. "That's going to help her out a lot in terms of her confidence in a game."

Against Liberty, the Lions were without Reardon and senior defender Kelsey Elliott was still being eased back into play after recovering from a knee injury. Freshman forward Hannah Hayduk didn't play in the preseason due to injury. Nichols had hoped to pair Hayduk with Carlson at forward and let them generate the offensive production. Hayduk's absence, coupled with Reardon's short-term hiatus hurt, had an obvious effect in St. Helens' 5-0 loss to Liberty, but the wish was for each player to return sometime during NWOC play if things go according to plan.

The Lions lose Carlson, Alyssa Marsh, Anessa Mandella, Kelsey Elliott, McKenna Coddington and Amber Trenaman to graduation but will have the majority of their squad back on the pitch next fall.

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