By Kyle LoJacono
Two years ago, the Wharton girls soccer team captured the program’s first postseason berth and district championship.
“That was probably the best experience of my life,” said senior defender Sam Lawrence. “It was crazy. We were just unstoppable at that point I feel like. We were on a high. We want to repeat it.”
The Wildcats (4-0-1) were agonizingly close to making it back-to-back playoff appearances last season. They lost 3-2 in penalty kicks to Newsome in the Class 5A-District 7 semifinals.
“When I think about the game, it brings back all the feelings of how we just put everything we had out there,” said senior forward Ashni Deschenes, a Stetson University commit. “Sometimes it’s just not enough. For me, it drives me to work harder this year and encourage my teammates to work harder so that maybe if we’re put in the same situation it’ll be another outcome.”
That determination to get back shows how far the program has developed since Denis Vukorep became the coach seven years ago.
“As the years have gone by, we’ve slowly gained confidence each season,” Vukorep said. “I think the girls believe that they can win, and I think that across the county and state we’re a lot more respected. The girls feel that, and the confidence has helped us get better.”
Wharton lost seven seniors from the 2011-12 squad, six of whom were starters. Deschenes (14 goals, six assists) said she looked up to those players.
“Our captains last year (Emily Belanger and Baylee Dozark) were kind of like the moms of the team,” Deschenes said. “You could go to them for anything. Now that Sam and I are captains this year, I can only speak for myself, and I hope to be in that same mom role and be a great leader for my teammates.”
Vukorep said the loss of those seniors will hurt the squad, but is confident in the players still wearing Wildcats blue.
“It sounds weird to say when you lose six seniors who were starters, but I feel like with the kids who have gotten better and the new players we can potentially and should be even better than last year,” Vukorep said. “I guess it’s odd, but I think we will be better. You look at girls like Ashni, Leah Chisolm, Laura Johnson, Lexie Oeth, they’re going to be a formidable attack. We’ve got good senior leadership with Sam Lawrence in the middle of the field, and she’s going to be able to calm down the freshmen.”
One of the places that was hit most by graduation was goalkeeper.
The Wildcats lose three-year starter Heather Montgomery, who allowed 21 goals in as many games with 107 saves and six shutouts last season.
Stepping into the net is senior Courtney Bodamer, who was on the squad two years ago and said she learned a lot from watching Montgomery.
“She helped me with everything,” Bodamer said. “Confidence is a big thing, and then with skill and (she) taught me more about the game in high school. I was really thankful to have her. … I’m a little nervous, but I think we’ll have a good team. I just have to bring my game.”
Vukorep has a plan to help ease Bodamer into the mix.
“From what we’ve seen, Courtney will be able to make the saves that we need,” Vukorep said. “We’re hoping that the other 10 girls on the field limit her exposure to some of those shots. Try to force them to take shots that are savable and not giving up breakaways and set pieces.”
Vukorep said playing in 5A-7 with teams like Newsome, Plant and Bloomingdale will force them to get better quickly. He added, that, mixed with their new winning mentality will benefit them this season.
“Everyone in our district understands if you get out of our district, then you have a chance at a state championship,” Vukorep said. “I think that within our group we don’t look at it as we almost beat someone. There’s an expectation that we are going to go to regionals. Four years ago we didn’t have that expectation, and I think now it’s not a matter of if we make regionals. It’s, OK, we are going on to regionals. I think that expectation is one of the biggest difference.”
The 5A-7 tournament is at Plant Jan. 15 to 19, with the final Jan. 19 at 6 p.m.
Wharton hosts district rival Durant Nov. 13 at 8 p.m.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker