By Matt Williams
---- — There are a lot of eyes on the Beverly High girls soccer team this fall.
With five returning Northeastern Conference all-stars, it’s easy to see why.
The Panthers, winners of the Division 1 North title a year ago and moving to Division 2 this fall after the state’s realignment, have the skill, athletic ability and experience to be one of the top squads not just on the North Shore, but in Eastern Mass., this season.
“It’s great to be in the position that we’re in,” said coach Kristin Simpson, beginning her 10th season coaching her alma mater. “Last year we did so well in part because we didn’t have any pressure or expectations put on us. We have the talent to go far and do well, and we have to make sure mentally we’re prepared game-in and game-out this year.”
Beverly should be very strong in the front and back ends. Senior Caitlin Harty, a Holy Cross commit, led the state with 50 goals a year ago and is already BHS’ all-time leader with 90 career goals and 119 points. Junior Eva Gourdeau, committed to Syracuse, is her running mate at the other forward spot; she led the area in assists last season with 19.
“We’ve been calling them ‘Key-va’ in the preseason. Instead of having to say ‘Good job Caitlin’ and ‘Good job Eva’ all the time, the whole team’s been yelling ‘Key-va,” Simpson joked.
“They’re always doing things together. They’re so soccer smart, and so technically good, that as they get back into the rhythm of playing together we’re seeing good things.”
Two-year captain Diandra Crowley, a senior, leads the defense. Junior Rose Terner, senior Faith Piotrowski and junior Sophie Claus could fill out the backline, though the Panthers are still mulling their formation and how many defensive mids they’ll deploy.
Crowley’s leadership will be paramount.
“D’s been on the team since she was a freshman and to watch her grow has been an inspiration,” Simpson said of Crowley. “You’re always going to get 110 percent from her. Attitude, leadership, athleticism ... you couldn’t ask for a better captain.”
Goalie Kyra Wolonsavich, a junior transfer from Bishop Fenwick, has enabled senior Casey Cook to move back to midfield. Senior Kristen O’Connor, committed to Bryant College, is an excellent defensive midfielder and had an accurate foot for free kicks and set pieces on offense.
The combination of Cook and O’Connor, plus Sarah Visnick, in the middle could help Beverly shore up one of its few weak spots.
“Our focus is in the middle. We maybe weren’t the strongest midfield last year and that’s what we want to improve on. We really need to put everything together in that spot,” said Simpson, who has been impressed with freshman Kadrianna Letts in the preseason as well.
The Panthers know they’ll be challenged in the Northeastern Conference, a league that looks to have improved depth compared to a year ago. Beverly has a non-league game with perennial power Danvers on Sept. 10 in a game that highlights two of the top teams in Division 2 statewide.
The Falcons return 14 varsity players, including Rhode Island commit Kylie Plaza in the middle. Their depth and strength in the possession game will be second to few, and they’re looking to collect even more goals with top scorers Shannon Pohle and Delaney Zecha back.
Then there’s Peabody, which graduated five four-year starters. The Tanners have won four straight NEC titles and are unbeaten in their last 32 league matches (31-0-1) dating back to 2010. They’re led by three-year starters Madison Doherty (a Providence College commit) and Caitlin Lodi at goalie.
“The NEC could be dynamite,” said veteran Danvers coach Jimmy Hinchion. “I look around the league and it seems like almost everyone has improved. There aren’t a lot of teams that look down.”
Salem could be a team to watch in their third season under coach Fred Day. Alix Bryant is committed to Hartford (giving the league six Division 1 college players) and will be excellent at defensive mid. Senior captain Brenna Burke is also solid and the Witches have a number of juniors that are three-year starters including Katherine Towey and Deema Hijleh.
“The girls have paid their dues and earned their stripes,” said Day. “We’re in very good shape. They’ve put in a lot of work this summer in terms of conditioning and that should help us keep our focus at the end of games. We’ve had good spirit in the preseason.”
Marblehead has a talented striker in junior Mia Bongiorno and made the tournament last year under first-year coach Andrew Bub. The Magicians have some spots to fill due to graduation, but with the system in the place they will be competitive. Swamspcott, under first-year coach Ken Leeder, remains in the mix as well.
As for Beverly, the Panthers remain confident but cautious. Their senior class has established its identity and style of play over the past few years with great success. They also know that there are few easy roads in the NEC these days.
“I think its just a matter of playing well under pressure,” said Simpson. “We need to mentally prepare for every game and make sure we play with consistency.”