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FSP: Lady Lions poised for best season in program history


St. Helens has yet to make the post season in their 25-year history, dating back to their first season in 1989

Photo Credit: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Senior center back Sydney Nett was a bright spot in a difficult season for the Lions in 2013, as St. Helens missed the post season yet again, and by a hair's breadth. Nett will anchor the St. Helens back line with the hope that she will be the first captain to ever lead a team to the playoffs.
The end game for the St. Helens girls’ soccer program is fairly simple in the mind of third-year head coach Simon Date.

“We didn’t move the goalposts,” he quipped, as only the English-born Date can do. “We’re making playoffs.”

Even in the light of the massive improvements made to the program over the course of the last several seasons, Date’s plan is a groundbreaking one. In that, never, in their 25-history, have the Lions ever truly tasted the post season.

They’ve come tantalizingly close, falling 2-1 to Mountain View in the 2007 play-in round, and dropping a penalty shootout in 2012 at the hands of West Albany. Their inaugural season in 1989 saw the Lions finish 5-4 in the Tri-Valley League and advance to the league playoffs before falling 2-1 to Gladstone in a rain-drenched affair. Only Catlin Gabel advanced to the 16-team bracket, and according to Date, it’s high time the Lions reverse the troubling trend. At this point, it’s personal.

   “I would like to think we’d maybe get out of the first, maybe first or second round of playoffs,” Date said. “I would love to make playoffs straight away and not the play-in game, but I’ll take playoffs.”

Much of the plan revolves around team co-captain Sydney Nett. Playing and anchoring the defense at centerback in front of goalkeeper Athena Duggan, Nett was a standout for the Lions in a season that saw plenty of disappointment and tough losses. Now, she’s attracted the attention of college coaches and will look to end her high school career on a high note.

“I could think of no better way than for her to be the first St. Helens captain to take a team to playoffs,” Date said. “We’re realistic in the fact that we’re not going to win state this year, but we are going to turn heads this year. It’s going to be the year that we really make our mark, and when you take that to next year, honestly it’s good. We are going to be up there with the big schools this year.”

Nett leads a back line that has been consistent through the summer, helping to meld Gabby Hora, Mara Buchco and freshman Cora Beaudry into a solid defensive wall.

The winning, though, will have to come from up front. Speedy redheaded Ashley Geisbers will spearhead the offense as one of the program’s most dangerous and fiery forwards. Now that she’s into her junior season, Geisbers will begin to handle a leadership role in addition to her scoring responsibilities.

“This year, Ashley is going to carry the scoring load, and I don’t think there’s any doubt of that. I mean, the kid’s unstoppable. However, this year we got her some help,” said Date, pointing out Sophia Estep, a slight-of-build sophomore with bright yellow boots.

While Geisbers drew a majority of the focus from opponents’ defensive game plans last season, Date expects that teams will be forced to split their resources now that they have a two-headed scoring monster with two lightning-quick forwards on the prowl.

“I’ve asked her for two years to take everything herself. If she doesn’t score, we don’t win. We don’t,” Date said. “It’s been a one-woman team in terms of scoring, but now, she’s got Sophia to back her up, and it’s great to see. We made Ashley a captain this year, and it’s nice to see her step into that role and really take Sophia under her belt and let go of some of that pressure. She’s been dynamite all summer. She’s been tearing teams apart, and it’s scary.”

With Geisbers and Estep up front, Nett along the back line and Dugan in goal, it’s been up to Date to sort out how to best place the returning talent and mix in a host of freshmen. They’re the first freshmen to have truly come up through the FC Columbia County club system, and there’s an obvious difference.

“They’re a class above. They’re soccer players, verses just athletes, I think is the best way to describe them,” said Date, who is currently coaching next year’s group of freshman on the club’s U14 squad. “I think now, with these guys coming in with the club system behind them, it’s been fantastic to see them develop. They’re coming in ready to play, and that’s the difference.”

Instead of spending the first few weeks of practice working on basics, Date has been able to focus on the finer aspects of the game: tactics, set pieces and how to actually run an offensive system specifically designed around the players he has on the field. The five freshmen on the varsity team, according to Date, could start without batting an eye, and have bonded with the juniors to form a group Date said will be “scary here in a few years.”

At this point, St. Helens has turned heads with their progress, but nothing more. They’re not expected to win the Northwest Oregon Conference league title, and not expected to challenge on their way to the state final. The goal, along with a playoff appearance, is to continue changing the way opposing teams view them.

“I think, right now, we’re the underdog. It’s a program that hasn’t gained the respect that it, honestly, has deserved,” Date said. “We’re fighting history, to some extent. We’ve been the whipping kids for some time now, and I think we’ve done a good job to claw ourselves out of the hole.”

Last spring, Date unveiled new traveling and practice gear, nailed down equipment sponsorships from Adidas and left the spring parent meeting with the new vision in hand: they’ll look like they belong, they’ll play like they belong, and they’ll finally assert themselves and become something the community can be deeply proud of. The other teams in the league have thrown out the old approach to Lady Lion soccer – “Oh, we’ll just show up and win” – and are forced to prepare for the team’s philosophy and specific talents across the pitch.

“They actually know some of our girls and it’s a big deal now, when they play us. They know that they’re going to be in a game,” Date said. “From a branding standpoint, we’re the new kids on the block and we’re enjoying it and we’ll ruffle some feathers if we have to. It’ll be good.”Photo Credit: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - The St. Helens girls are loaded with freshman and juniors, a combination of girls head coach Simon Date called 'scary'.