Building experience main focus for defending state runner-up

Published 12:07 pm Thursday, February 26, 2015

DAVID CUCCHIARA | DAILY NEWS A NEW LOOK: Returning starters like Sydney Edwards, Caitlyn Scott and Anna McLawhorn will lead the Pam Pack girls’ soccer team in 2015.

A NEW LOOK: Returning starters like Sydney Edwards, Caitlyn Scott and Anna McLawhorn will lead the Pam Pack girls’ soccer team in 2015.

The Washington girls’ soccer team has come a long way in 12 months. Last February, former seniors Christian Heggie, Alana Jefferson and Harley Hudson could be found campaigning around the halls of Washington High School, desperately trying to recruit soccer players, experienced or not, to come off the bench and support the starters. Eventually, just a few days leading up to the season opener against J.H. Rose, the Pam Pack finally had enough players to field a full team.

An understaffed Washington dropped that first game, 1-0, but would piece together the most remarkable season in program history, winning 21-straight games and an Eastern Plains Conference championship before being plagued by injuries in the 2-A state championship — a 2-0 loss to West Stokes.

It’s amazing the effect one successful campaign can have on a program because this February, the narrative that once was is no longer.

A year ago, head coach Ed Rodriguez only had 10 players on his roster. Today, he has 10 freshmen, interest sparked by the most improbable and unexpected of state championship runs. Washington, entering the 2015 season with 22 players on the roster, opens the season with something it’s never had — depth.

“It’s very comforting to know that (this team) has a bright future,” Rodriguez said. “I can build something now. I have 10 players who are going to be here for the next four years, who in my opinion are more advanced and motivated than previous players at that age.

“Last season, everybody saw that even though we’re not a soccer powerhouse, if you have people who want to play, want to put in the effort, want to work together, you can accomplish a lot, no matter the pedigree of soccer in Washington compared to the Jacksonville or Raleigh area. Hard work, dedication, teamwork is sometimes better than talent level.”

In 2014, Washington’s team was stocked with senior leadership, led by a pair of future collegiate players in Jefferson and Heggie, who led the entire state of North Carolina with 55 goals.

With freshmen making up nearly half of the roster, the focus is to get the younger players in-game experience, valuable minutes needed to stay competitive not only down the line, but this season as well. Avoiding any clichéd phrases involving the word “rebuilding,” Rodriguez sees this team, one full of new faces, as possibly being stronger than last year’s lineup, despite the loss of the team’s core — Jefferson, Heggie and Hudson.

The pressure is now placed on the shoulders of a different group of seniors — goalie Emily Alligood, defender Anna McLawhorn, defender turned midfielder Warner Little, defender Rubi Perez and standout midfielder Caitlyn Scott, the team’s unquestioned centerpiece and expected facilitator.

Scott enters the season as the Pam Pack’s active career scoring leader, coming off a 20-goal season, which was good enough for third-most on the team (and in the Eastern Plains Conference). Earlier this month, the Washington center midfielder became the first player from the state championship team to commit to a Division I school by signing her letter of intent to play at Wofford next fall.

“Those five girls who came in during the 2011-2012 year, they have exceeded their own expectations and my expectations,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve seen teams here for many years and I know we’ve had some good players, but we could never put good streaks together. This group has been able to do it, along with other girls who have played in the same period. It’s just a lot of good work and I don’t think this group is finished yet writing their own story.”

The seniors have all but solidified their starting roles, but the formation and other positions are far from finalized. With the combination of youth and depth, Rodriguez anticipates flexibility from game-to-game, being able to mix and match underclassmen at certain positions to give them a more complete understanding of the game. It will make shifting from an offensive-minded 4-4-2 formation to a defensive-centered 4-5-1, a strategy employed last season, easier and more manageable.

Boasting one of the top midfields in the state in 2014, locking down the center of the field is again a top priority for the Pam Pack. Little will join Scott in the midfield and the lightning-quick sophomore Sydney Edwards, who had a productive freshman campaign, will make the transition to striker, where she will share time with junior Alyssa Rodriguez and a medley of freshmen. McLawhorn and Perez will anchor the back line.

“When the midfield is strong, it makes the offense easier and playing defense a lot easier,” coach Rodriguez said. “The offensive explosion (last year) was a byproduct of the midfield. It’s not what I had in mind, but it’s what happened because the midfield made it happen.

“Midfield is where you win the game. The changes I made this year were to strengthen that. I have some freshmen who with a little experience behind them will be just as strong.”

Allowing just nine goals in 25 games, the objective in 2015, ultimately, is an Eastern Plains Conference championship, one the Pam Pack took easily last season, outscoring opponents 74-0.

Poised, confident and ready to run onto Kugler Field, the new site for all of home games, the Pam Pack prepares to make another historic run.

Washington will open the season on Monday at home against Northeastern.