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The chemistry to do something special

Glad coach has high expectations

GLADSTONE - Gladstone High School's girls soccer team got off to a rough start this fall, dropping its first two games - 2-1 to Scappoose and 1-0 to Philomath.

But the Gladiators were quick to right the ship, upending Seaside 6-0 on Sept. 10.

Anyone who believes the Gladiators are not going to a factor in the Class 4A state title chase in 2011 because of their suspect start had better think again.

The Gladiators have gone 70-7-5 over the past five seasons, winning four league championships. They were state champions in 2009, and their state playoff losses in 2006, 2007, 2008 and again last year were to the teams that ended up winning state.

Last year they lost to 2010 state champion Marist in overtime in the semifinals.

'It would be nice to go out with a big bang and [win state] our senior year,' said midfielder Haleigh Murrell, a four-year starter. 'That's what we'd like to do. If our team continues to work hard and works together, I definitely think we have a chance.'

The Gladiators return 10 players with starting experience from last season, including most of last year's offense, an offense that averaged 3.7 goals en route to a 14-2-1 record.

'This team has hit the ground running,' said Gladstone coach Steve Thomas. 'They are passing and moving the ball around at this point in the season better than any team I've coached in my 14 years at Gladstone.'

'We have a lot of young people [on the team],' said senior co-captain Meagan Bartz. 'But as long as we keep working together, communicate and come focused and ready to play, I think we'll be pretty good.'

Thomas explained the early losses to Philomath and Scappoose:

'We out-shot both Scappoose and Philomath. We out-played both of them. We out-shot Philomath 15-10. The difference was finishing….

'Scappoose and Philomath are two of the top teams in the state and at the end of the season they're going to be in the state tournament. I can guarantee that.'

'We're rebuilding our defense,' Murrell said of the early losses. 'And a lot of it was nerves.'

Back to lead the Gladiators is junior Amber Jensen, who was Tri-Valley Conference 'offensive player of the year' in 2010.

Jensen, who played in the midfield last season, has moved up to the forward line, where she's starting with sophomore letterman Kelsey Hathaway. Hathaway garnered honorable mention in last year's league all-star balloting and Thomas says she's improved in leaps and bounds over a year ago.

Jensen scored three goals and made an assist in last week's rout of Seaside.

The Gladiators still have plenty of experience in the midfield, where seniors Murrell, Ashley Beykovsky, Brita Kintz and Rylee Jones all return with starting experience.

'They've been among our top three point getters (goals and assists) since their freshmen year,' Thomas said of Murrell and Beykovsky.

Beykovsky was a first-team all-conference selection last season, while Murrell and Jones were named to the second all-conference team.

The Gladiators also return experienced midfielders in juniors Madison Cronin and McKenna Hopkins.

Missed the most from last year is four-year starter Kellie Skofstad, who was the 2010 TVC 'defensive player of the year.'

Still the Gladiators are not without experience on defense. Bartz is a four-year starter on defense and junior Taylor Plunkett returns with experience on defense, as well as in the midfield. Both were second-team all-conference selections a year ago.

The Gladiators will be the least experienced at goalie, having graduated veteran Elise Breshears, who had a school-record 14 shutouts as a junior and allowed just nine goals in 17 games last season.

Thomas says he's got two freshmen - Molly Webster and Tianna Smith - battling for playing time at goal keeper.

Both have club soccer experience and Thomas says they've been training hard all summer under the tutelage of Megan Holter (2007), a Gladstone graduate who was league 'player of the year' two years in a row.

'They're improving in every game,' Bartz said of Webster and Smith. 'It will take some time, but I think that eventually they'll fill Elise's shoes.'

Thomas says he expects La Salle and Molalla to be his Gladiators' toughest competition in the Tri-Valley Conference. Molalla's only losses in league last year were to Gladstone, and La Salle last season was the only team in the TVC to tie Gladstone.

'This group's got the potential to do something special,' said Thomas. 'Barring injuries, I definitely think we can make the state tournament. And anything can happen from there.'

The Gladiators begin TVC play this Thursday, when they play host to Estacada.