BY ROB LAPLANTE
The St. Michael-Albertville girls’ soccer team came close a year ago, but a 2-1 loss to Anoka in the Section 8AA final championship game foiled its bid for its second ever trip to the state tournament.
After posting one of its best records (12-3-4 overall) in school history, the Knights fell one win shy last season of getting back to state. The only other time they made it that far was 2008, when they lost 1-0 to Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the state quarterfinal game.
With the return of several key players, including senior captains Maddie Barr, Jessica Johnson and MiCale Jensen, the Knights feel like they have both the talent and the internal fire to make another push for state.
“We definitely lost some key players,” said Jensen, who returns as this year’s starting goalkeeper. “But I do think we have the motivation and we have some young players that are stepping up.”
STMA loses six seniors off last year’s squad. The biggest blow to the team came when leading goal scorer Paige Voight, a freshman last season, transferred schools. Voight’s 10 goals led STMA and departed senior Andrea Boisner added six.
One of the younger players who stepped up was Makenzie Langdok, a seventh grader last year that finished tied for second on the team with six goals. Langdok and Johnson are this year’s top returning scorers. Johnson led the team with five assists and a team-high 77 shots. Sophomore Bobbi Brendefur and Barr each finished with four goals.
“Our defense will be a little more rebuilding,” said Megan Johnson, who is starting her 10th season as head coach at STMA. “We lost a strong senior defender last year and we’re looking at who is going to fill in those holes this year.”
If the team has trouble filling in the holes on defense, they always have the strength of its two quality goalkeepers. Both, Jensen and junior Becky Penuska saw varsity action in 2011, with Jensen gaining all-conference honors.
“We have a good balance of offense and defense,” Johnson said. “We really have a strong goalkeeper and a strong backup goalkeeper. We’re really fortunate there.”
After finishing last year 5-0-1 in the Mississippi 8 Conference and winning the regular season title for the second time in four years, Johnson said she has high hopes of the team repeating as conference champs.
“We usually go head-to-head with Rogers for the conference and last year was the first time they were in our section,” Johnson said. “They were state champs two years ago and now we have to battle them in both our conference and again in our section. Buffalo usually brings a pretty strong team too.”
With a record turnout of nearly 70 girls showing up for the first week of tryouts, the varsity roster is still a work in progress.
Junior BriAnna Hoffman returns as its top defender. Senior’s Emily Herbst, Taylor Poss and Johnson along with junior’s Maddi Young and Barr are the top returning midfielders.
“We do have some good returning players,” Johnson said. “Our goals are to win the conference and get back to the section final.”
For the fifth consecutive year, the Knights open the season at the Irondale Tournament. Their first game is Friday against East Ridge at 7 p.m.
This marks the third consecutive year they open against East Ridge in the season opening tournament. Last year East Ridge handed STMA one of only three losses they suffered all season with a 3-2 defeat in overtime. They followed that up the next day with a 4-2 win over Irondale.
The Knights have posted a 4-3-1 overall record at the Irondale Tournament. Two of those losses came to the Raptors. The Irondale field is played on turf instead of grass. “I personally like grass. A lot of the girls like turf because the ball moves faster,” Jensen said.
Despite starting the season on a losing note the past couple years, Johnson said opening its schedule each year with some of the top teams in the state has its advantages.
“I like playing against that competition,” she said. “It’s kind of a different game on turf. It’s faster but good experience for the girls.”