That Northland Prep Academy’s girls soccer team had the players consider a down year in 2021 says much about the quality of the program.
The Spartans went 12-2 (5-0 Central Region) and did not lose to an Arizona-based team all regular season last fall. They earned the No. 1 seed and reached the state championship game — it’s almost become a formality to see Northland Prep battle for a 2A Conference title — and lost a close contest to rival Chino Valley, 1-0.
After four consecutive state titles, even an objectively strong season felt like a letdown. The team began preseason practices for the fall season in late July.
The goal for the returning players is to make sure the Spartans don’t feel the same way again.
“It really brought out the passion in a lot of us. The older players that experienced what that was like, they really want to win it this year,” said senior Kyra Taylor.
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“That really showed us that what we expect isn’t always going to happen. We need to put in the work to actually get there, because it’s not easy to keep doing that,” added senior Hannah Petrucci.
There is a new look to the Spartans, who graduated some key seniors from last year’s team. Many of them were pivotal in the past run of titles.
Those still on the roster must incorporate the talented young girls that will make their own attempts at playing on the varsity squad. From the first few practices, though, some of the new Spartans have given the team some promise.
“We have a lot of new players and a lot of new potential. We have a lot of experienced players, but a lot of freshmen, too, who are trying to build up their skill and experience, and they look good,” Taylor said.
Another new look will be the team’s formation and style of play. At times, co-coaches Michael Blair and Keith Hovis have said, the offense looked stagnant in tough matches last year.
There were some quality players in many positions. But, especially in the title game, there were not enough creative plays made that would have made for real opportunities on goal.
The Spartans will continue to attack, as they always have been an aggressive offensive group. Now, though, the emphasis will be on quality passes and more short, quick ball movement instead of the same sort of simply long, vertical balls to strikers. Northland Prep will also empower the outside defenders to make runs up into the attack.
“We’re going to work on keeping it close to us instead of just playing the same ball in. We want to switch it a lot, draw the defense up and play it in behind them,” Petrucci said.
Blair knows, in order to succeed with the new plan, that the team’s older, veteran players must step up and implement the system well. From what he’s seen so far, the captains and experienced varsity leaders have done so.
“We just didn’t have that last year. It could have been because of COVID, but, whatever it was, they’ve gotten through it and I’ve seen a lot of growth,” he said. “They know what it takes this year, and I’ve kind of seen the difference of them being able to not just do what we tell them and what we want, but breaking down the other team’s defense and making those decisions based on what they’re reading.”
To do that, there is still plenty to learn.
“It’s a lot of getting in and playing. We’re going to have to work a lot at this formation, but I think we can do it,” Petrucci said.
The offseason is shorter than normal, so the work must be done quickly. Northland Prep plays its first match of the season against St. Johns on Aug. 25. The Spartans did not play their first game of 2021 until Sept. 7.