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Huskies have championship aspirations after falling short in each of last two seasons

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - North Marion junior Danielle Christenson is part of the strong junior class that will propel the Huskies in the 2019 season.Two seasons ago, the freshman class of the North Marion girls soccer team entered the program with an emphatic exclamation point.

A team that had won two games the season before, the Huskies went 13-2-1 overall, went undefeated in league play to win the Oregon West Conference title and advanced to the state quarterfinals as the No. 1 seed in the state with the help of seven incoming first-year players.

Heading into the 2019 season, those players are now the face of the program and will largely determine if the Huskies can return to its previous heights and fight for opportunity at the school's first girls soccer state championship in history.

"That junior class, when they came in as freshmen, they boosted our program immensely," head coach Ben Bonser said. "They came in so strong as freshmen, they got better as sophomores, and they're looking great coming into their junior year."

But as good as that team was, it was the bad taste left at the end of the 2017 season that was the motivator going into last year. The Huskies squeezed out an unexpectedly close 3-2 win in the opening round of the state playoffs and fell 2-1 in overtime to the ninth-seeded Hidden Valley Mustangs in the quarterfinals.

Redemption was a key theme for the 2018 season, but poor injury luck, including the loss of All-State midfielder Mya Hammack for much of the season, kept North Marion from returning to the heights of the year before.

"She was out for 75 percent of our season, which had a huge impact," Bonser said.

Once healthy, the Huskies went 4-1 in their final two weeks of the regular season and the play-in round, outscoring opponents by a 26-4 margin in that span.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Head coach Ben Bonser said this years team is entering the fall season healthier and in better shape than in the previous two years.But the injuries had taken their toll to the tune of four losses and a pair of draws that dropped the Huskies far enough in the rankings that they had to open he first round of the state playoffs against the No. 1 La Grande Tigers.

Although North Marion took a 2-0 lead over the Tigers behind a pair of goals from then-sophomore Hailey Welch, La Grande came back to tie the game and win it off penalty kicks to eliminate the Huskies.

Now, heading into another fall season, the memories of what could have been and the thought of what the team is capable of doing permeate the roster this year.

"I think we know we have the talent and the ability to go all the way," Bonser said. "Obviously to make it all the way, everything has to fall into place. It doesn't matter how good you are. An injury could take you out, a little bad luck here — a little good luck can take you further."

With just one senior expected on this year's team heading into tryouts, leadership largely falls on the shoulders of that vaunted junior class, which includes Hammack and Welch in addition to Katie Zapata, Marissa Colby, Carter Crawford, Dani Christenson and Alex McArthur.

But they won't be alone. In the face of last year's injury bug, the team's 2018 freshman class was asked to contribute more than anticipated, and that experience will pay off heading into this season. Add in another class of freshmen that will likely see some playing time of their own, and the Huskies are geared up and ready to go.

"We've got girls coming in over the next couple years that'll help us, and obviously our sophomores this year," Bonser said. "I think we have a good strong 12 players. We won't be really deep this year, but we do have some freshmen coming in that are probably going to be starters for us, if not real close to being starters."

North Marion will see another new face as well with the addition of new assistant coach Kira Armstrong, who replaces outgoing coach Mario Guadarrama. A four-year varsity player in Oklahoma who graduated from Oregon State University in June, Armstrong will teach world history at the high school this season and has seen good things of the Huskies and Oregon soccer since joining the program in May.

"I've been quite impressed with the talent here," Armstrong said. "It far outranks a lot of talent I've seen across the United States."

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - After falling in the quarterfinals in 2017 and in the first round in 2018, this years North Marion girls soccer team is looking at advancing deep into the state playoffs this fall.

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