by Aaron Garcia
As he was sizing up his team’s impending season before play began in February, Providence High girls soccer coach Tim Long wasn’t exactly sure what to make of his Panthers’ odds.
On the one hand, he knew the squad would benefit from the return of seven seniors from last year’s team that finished with a record of 11-6-3, which included an 8-4-2 (third-place) mark in the Southwestern 4A conference. But on the other hand, there were nine roster spots left unfilled from graduations and transfers.
“So I knew, (after) losing half my team, that I’d have a lot of new girls that would have to step up also,” said Long.
So far, so good for the Panthers, who sport an 8-3 record, which includes a 5-1 mark in league play. The Panthers began the season with three consecutive wins over Mallard Creek, Hopewell and Indian Trail Sun Valley by a combined score of 19-0. After a 0-3 setback to Cornelius’ Hough High on March 7, Long’s crew tallied three more shutout wins (9-0 over Rocky River, 2-0 over South Mecklenburg and 2-0 over Independence) before enduring a 2-1 defeat to South Carolina’s Hannah High (15-1) on March 17.
The Panthers bounced back to record perhaps their strongest win of the season when they downed Southwestern 4A challenger Myers Park, 2-0, on March 20, and added another shutout over East Mecklenburg (8-0) two days later.
Long said a big key to the success has been the fact that the team has gelled despite the large gaps in the players’ ages.
“It was one of those things where I knew I was trying to get the team to gel together and play together,” said Long, who explained that while he had a strong contingent of seniors on the roster, “at the beginning, it was a totally segregated team of upperclassmen and lowerclassmen.”
Long said while it’s natural for longtime teammates to become a bit cliquish, he knew the team would only succeed if everyone felt included.
“I talked to some of (the seniors) about it – there were a few who were freshman on the varsity when they started, so it was one of those (situations) where you’re trying to tell them to think back to four years ago and how it felt for them and everything,” said Long.
And there have been tangible changes as well, such as team dinners and a new squad rule requiring everyone to ride the team bus back to Providence after away games.
“For me, it’s another small opportunity for them to celebrate with each other after a win or be with each other after a tough loss,” said Long. “It’s just another way of getting that team bonding going and getting those relationships.”
That growing camaraderie among the players has resulted in some enjoyable bus rides for the Panthers, and that cohesion is beginning to also manifest itself on the field. Since Long arrived at Providence from South Mecklenburg three years ago, the Panthers have featured a stout defense, and this year is no different, as the Panthers have only allowed seven goals on the season (one of which was an own goal). But the biggest difference has been the team’s offense. Last year the Panthers managed 43 goals on the season. This season, the Panthers have already netted 44.
So far, Kate Brandon (last year’s leading scorer with 11 goals) has nine goals, while fellow senior forward Logan Vitale has eight. Freshman midfielder Ellie Deaver already has accounted for 11. The offensive improvement has also helped to alleviate the pressure on the team’s staunch defensive unit featuring Maddie King and Tanner Murphy (centerbacks), left back Jessie Pagnatta and right back M.C. Heideman.
While much of the success has come by way of the players’ growing familiarity with each other, it also helps that they seem to be grasping Long’s system.
“(I think they’re getting that) continuity with the coach and knowing what I’m waiting to see and do and what we’re working on in practice and in the games,” Long said.
Long said that while the improvement has been nice, more gains are needed as the team embarks on the second half of its season following spring break. In case his players need proof, all he has to do is point to the Panthers’ 2-1 loss to rival Ardrey Kell on March 29.
“I keep reminding them that we have to get better,” said Long. “Not only do we have to get better, we have to get better more than the teams we play.
“We know that everybody’s going to want to get us back (for beating them in the first half of the season), so we have to make sure we keep improving every day, every practice, every game, more so than the teams we play,” Long continued. “We just have to keep getting better, and we have to know that the other teams are going to keep getting stronger also.”