Ask any first-year coach about obstacles they would rather not deal with in their inaugural season, and two will come to mind: injuries and a difficult schedule. Brian Ressler had to tackle both during his first campaign as head coach for the Elizabethtown Area High School girls soccer team.
Nailed with the second-toughest schedule in District 3 and widespread injury outbreaks, the Lady Bears struggled throughout 2018, ultimately going just 3-12-2. Two of those wins came against McCaskey and both ties were against Garden Spot (a district playoff qualifier).
Moreover, all but two members of the opening day lineup missed at least one game due to injury, and half of them suffered season-ending ailments. The only two who started every game were Ally DeBerry and Kaelynn Sheetz, and even they had to play hurt on a few occasions. Ressler admitted that adjusting to the high school level was new for him (noting that he “wasn’t mentally prepared for four-game weeks”), but there are very few coaches who could overcome that amount of adversity right from the get-go.
“A lot of it was bad luck early on,” Ressler said. “We probably didn’t prepare their bodies enough for that type of work rate. And then just jumping into the season with three tough games with Penn Manor, Cedar Crest and Dallastown, all physical teams, was not easy. But nobody can prepare for losing four starters in the first two games of the season. We learned a lot from last year. Different ways to approach the ball and training the body to take impact and recover.”
The Lady Bears are hoping things will be better in 2019. Armed with a ton of returning players (DeBerry, a Mount Aloysious College commit, was the lone starter to graduate), the team could most certainly bounce back, provided that the roster stays healthy. Ressler jumped ahead of potential injuries during the break, developing a workout plan based around speed, agility and change of direction. He also implemented conditioning tests, while some players changed their diets as well.
“I think we’ve had a really good offseason,” Ressler said. “There’s a lot of good focus on what the expectations for the girls are going to be moving forward. We’ve done a lot of training this summer on work rate, recovery and rest to prepare the body for back-to-backs, as well as style of play. We’re gonna have a much trimmer varsity roster so the girls have more cohesion together. Some of the girls put in a ton of effort, and I have upcoming freshmen and sophomores that are dying to steal any minutes they can. They’re gonna push a lot of these upperclassmen for spots, so I’m excited.”
Ahead of the 2018 season, Ressler described the 2020 class as “hungry.” That hasn’t changed. The Lady Bears are fronted by Sheetz, who led the team in scoring with 8 goals last season. All-Star defender Alicia Underkoffler is back, as is Jasmine Garcia (5 goals) and Amber Bostdorf (2 goals). Other returning seniors include Sydney Scott and Malayna Van Winkle.
“I feel like we all have experience now, from the upperclassmen to the up-and-coming players,” Sheetz said. “That’s where a lot of our confidence is coming from. We just learned how to stay positive and fun even through all the bad times.”
“They’ve been wanting to be seniors and push for something this year for a long time,” Ressler said. “That’s one of the things they talked to me about when I got hired. I think there are a lot of hungry juniors behind them that are going to supplement them well. We have a lot of positives ahead of us that I’m really looking forward to.”
There’s also one new senior who wasn’t with the team last year, though she’s no stranger to the program. After receiving major playing time during her freshman and sophomore campaigns with Elizabethtown, Olivia Shuck spent her junior season playing for PA Classics, which is part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Now, she’s back with the Lady Bears.
“A big reason I wanted to come back was because it’s my senior year,” Shuck said. “I know it’s the last time I can play with my teammates and for my school. It’s been pretty normal reconnecting with everyone. I’ve known a lot of these people for basically my whole life. Some of the senior class has been playing since we were eight and nine years old.”
“I’m super excited about it considering she’s my best friend,” Sheetz said. “We have that chemistry from playing next to each other for so long.”
“Part of it was we didn’t have those studs, so getting Liv Shuck back up top this year is going to be huge for us,” Ressler said. “She and Kaelynn have an amazing, natural chemistry together. Just getting everybody that experience last year is gonna help our goalscoring. We only had three girls who were varsity starters prior to last season, and this year, not including Liv, we’ll have six or seven.”
It doesn’t stop there. With all the players lost to injury, many Elizabethtown players who were sophomores and freshmen got time in 2018. That year of experience will definitely help them this time around. Among the juniors, Olivia Anson finished with a team-high 5 assists, while Carly Sedun scored twice and played a major role on defense alongside Underkoffler.
Goalkeeper Kaitlyn Snyder was one of the best shot blockers in the Lancaster-Lebanon League; she had 113 saves, and she’s aiming to be the goalies in the league. Mykah Macfarlane got a lot of playing time at outside back, much of it playing hurt. Sophia Berry will be a key cog in the scoring attack as well; she only played a handful of contests before falling victim to injury.
“I think we’re all very determined to be better than last year,” Berry said. “We kind of have a drive that will be beneficial this season. There are new players and upcoming freshmen who are really passionate about the sport, and that’s what we need. We all blended together really well.”
For the sophomores, Olivia Shuck’s younger sister Aivery was second behind Anson with 4 assists. Jess Gilbert, Brieal Fry and Kendall Davies each got the chance to suit up thanks to all the injuries. Ressler also identified Lily Heistand, Taryn Hummer and Abby Sedun (Carly’s younger sister) as the three freshmen who could push the upperclassmen for minutes.
While having everyone back healthy is a good thing, the Lady Bears will still have to deal with a daunting schedule that includes matchups against Cumberland Valley and Mechanicsburg, who won the Class 4A Championships in District 3, as well as playoff qualifiers Mechanicsburg (the Class 3A runner-up and a state semifinalist), Central Dauphin (the Class 4A runner-up), Dallastown and Exeter. Not to mention the usual Section Two slate of Manheim Central (the District 3 Class 3A champions), Ephrata (a Class 4A state semifinalist), Lampeter-Strasburg and Garden Spot (both district playoff teams).
Still, Elizabethtown’s travel isn’t as exhausting as last season; the furthest the Lady Bears will have to go is to Mechanicsburg, and they get Cumberland Valley and Exeter at home. With all the talent coming back, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for them to pull off some upsets and put themselves into the Section Two title mix. As long as the injuries stay away, the future looks bright.
“A lot of us really want to go far,” Olivia Shuck said. “We really want to make our mark, get people back into watching girls soccer and just bring the program back up. Most of the motivation comes from playing together for so long. There’s definitely something really special about that.”
“We’re all really positive and excited to get back on the field,” Berry said. “We want to be successful, but we also want to have fun doing it. School soccer should be a good balance of competitiveness and enjoying yourself with your teammates.”
“We want to improve on last year. I think we’re capable of challenging for the section,” Ressler said. “Some of the other teams have lost top players, and we have some good talent coming along. I’m hoping that this 2020 class really leaves a lasting mark on this program. It’s just about collaborating to create something awesome.”