Talented St. Mary's girls reload
The way second-year St. Mary’s High girls soccer coach Martin Nelson sees it, his players are standing on a ladder to success. Each girl on the varsity and JV teams occupies a rung.
“The emphasis needs to be on each player to take it upon themselves to improve their skill set,” he said. “They should be fighting for that next level on the ladder. If you’re at the bottom part of the JV team, then work hard to get more playing time, and then to be a starter, and then to play varsity. You have to know there is always someone out there working, and if you’re not willing to work, then someone will take your spot.”
Nelson admitted he’s a little spoiled, though, because he has several girls who would be stationed at or near the top of other teams’ ladders.
For starters, there is senior Sophia Dobry, a speedy center midfielder who can take control of a game.
“She’s definitely one of our most impactful players,” said Nelson of Dobry, a former cross-country standout. “She’s really good at commanding the team, seeing what needs to happen and then communicating her message to the rest of the team.”
Dobry was often double-teamed during the 2019 season — the last time St. Mary’s competed in a state-sanctioned circuit — but rather than force the issue, she set up a teammate. Often it was forward Ryker Rothfus, who torched opponents for 22 goals, four assists and three hat tricks as the Crusaders won the District 5 title, posted a 12-4 record and advanced to the Class 3A/2A/1A state semifinals.
Unfortunately for St. Mary’s, Rothfus, a junior, may not play in this spring’s nine-game season after suffering a medial meniscus tear in her right knee during a club game last fall.
Others near the top of the imaginary ladder include senior midfielder Stella Olson and senior defender Mia Castillo. Dobry, Rothfus, Olson and Castillo all earned first-team all-league honors in 2019.
Junior defender Sofia Castillo, Mia’s sister, junior midfielder Brennan Gangnes and sophomores Carmel Ashland and Rees Wright also return as regulars on the pitch for St. Mary’s.
Senior midfielder/wing Ainsley Dole is also back after a year of studying abroad.
In a normal season that featured a traditional state-playoff format, the Crusaders would be a title threat, as they’ve been for most of the past decade. They’ve advanced to the semifinals each of the past three seasons, and seven of the past nine, losing to nemesis Oregon Episcopal School each time.
The Oregon School Activities Association has set aside a “culminating week” in April for an extra contest against a comparable opponent outside of league play. It’s conceivable St. Mary’s could clash with the Portland-based Aardvarks once again.
“Having that (culminating week) is an added incentive for our girls as we work our way through this (the pandemic),” said Nelson. “But we’re just excited that, hey, it’s happening, we’re finally getting to play.”
Even with Rothfus sidelined, Nelson believes St. Mary’s, with eight returning starters, could be a step above last year. It’s all about climbing the ladder.
Cascade Christian lost District 5 player of the year Bryton Plankenhorn and fellow all-stars Lauren Anderchuk and Braelyn Day to graduation, along with Mick Power, who stepped aside from coaching the team following the 2019 campaign.
But don’t feel too sorry for the Challengers, who return junior all-star forward Katie Erno, sturdy senior sweeper Zoie Fisher — the team captain — and standout senior goalie Emily Knight.
Upbeat Jeff Fairbanks, who coached several of the girls in middle school track a couple years ago, steps in to lead the squad.
“Win, lose or draw, we’re excited to play,” said Fairbanks, who stood in goal and got peppered with shots as his team worked on corner kicks last week in practice. “These girls are so much fun to coach, so willing to learn.”
Knight turned some heads last fall when, before the season was canceled, she won a goalie competition among six teams.
“It’s hard to find a good goalie,” said Fairbanks. “It’s been said that goalies are the only ones on the team who don’t get to play soccer, but Emily embraces the role. And we’ll move her out of there at times and let her play in the field.”
Senior center halfback Katelyn Willard also figures to contribute, and Fairbanks is high on sophomores Autumn Murray (center fullback), Bella Williams (center forward) and Ellie Vanlandingham (right fullback and right forward).
Fairbanks said that Murray, a standout long jumper in track, is “really fast, really quick on her feet and very tough to get around. She’s like an octopus — all legs.”
Vanlandingham is a speedster who runs the 100 in track, the coach noted, while Williams displays endurance and staying power with her cross-country background. And despite her youth, Williams has shown leadership skills and “will be a glue player for our team,” said Fairbanks.
Rogue River, meanwhile, won’t field a team this spring due to a lack of players, but junior Makyala Drake, an all-star midfielder in 2019, has joined the boys team and should contribute, co-head coach Gavin Decker said.
District 5 Boys
St. Mary’s has a glowing resume in boys soccer: six straight district titles and 19 straight trips to the state playoffs, with a state title in 2003. Such dominance in District 5 play could be in jeopardy this spring as the Crusaders return just two starters: senior all-star midfielder Will Kranenburg and sophomore forward/wing Noah Freezin.
Fourth-year coach Esia Tia Tutu always has a trick or two up his sleeve, but he may have to work some extra magic to free up Kranenburg, a four-year starter who surely will be double-teamed the moment he steps on the field.
“We’ll use him as a decoy — he’s too skilled and too fast to be shut down for an entire game,” said Tia Tutu of Kranenburg.
The Crusaders are also low on numbers as they have only 14 players in uniform, 11 fewer than 2019.
Can crosstown rival Cascade Christian, which has advanced to the state playoffs each of the past five seasons but gone 0-5, capitalize on St. Mary’s possible slide? First-year coach Javier De La Mora thinks so.
“Keep an eye on us,” said De La Mora.
The Challengers boast who many believe is the top player in District 5: forward Jonny McCoy, a 6-foot, 185-pound senior who registered 19 goals and five assists while earning district player-of-the-year accolades in 2019.
Senior Nathan Spurlock is poised to lead the defense, senior speedster Levi Marincus should nicely complement McCoy along the front line and senior Levi Sciapiti could be one of the top goalies in the district.
Savvy senior midfielder Ryan Crowl, senior defender Anders Meilicke and senior wing Solomon Hewitt will also contribute.
Cascade Christian lost three all-stars from 2019, for different reasons: senior Justin Fairbanks (he’s focusing on academics); junior Cody Reece (he’s focusing on basketball); and senior Dominic Lewis (he tore an ACL last fall).
The losses mean the Challengers might start as many as three freshmen, but De La Mora remains upbeat.
“Based on the past I think we’re definitely the underdogs, but we don’t plan to stay there,” he said.
Rogue River will lean on battle-tested seniors Asher Brotherton, Jimmy Geiger and Zyles Perryman to stay competitive.
Brotherton, a warrior who tore shoulder ligaments early in the 2019 season but waited to have surgery until after the campaign, has moved from defender to center midfielder to better utilize his speed.
Geiger, no stranger to contact, will now head up the defense while Perryman’s high soccer IQ should free him up to score from his forward position.
Sophomore midfielder/defender Bradley Friend, an honorable mention all-star in 2019, and junior goalie/forward Brayden Daniels are also pegged as significant contributors.