November 26, 2011 in Washington Voices

EV girls soccer team not just kicking back

Junior-class players powerhouse behind playoff appearances
Steve Christilaw
J. Bart Rayniak photoBuy this photo

East Valley soccer coach Gabe Escobar talks to his team while they stretch before practice on Nov. 14. The Knights, led by captains McKaylin Hughes, Amanda Bleisner and Kendra Morscheck, finished the season with a State 2A final four appearance for the second consecutive year.
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It was Tuesday afternoon, the second day of the offseason for East Valley girls soccer coach Gabe Escobar, and already he was looking for something to do.

“I’m not sure what to do with myself,” he chuckled. “I’m lost without soccer practice to go to.”

Part of the problem for Escobar is length of his Knights’ season. East Valley opened practice in the heat of August and were one of just four Class 2A squads to still be playing Saturday, the final day of the season. For the second straight year Escobar and East Valley came home with a fourth-place state trophy. The Knights fell 2-0 to Cedarcrest in the semifinal and by the same score to perennial Class 2A power Archbishop Murphy in the consolation game.

The second part is Escobar’s excitement for next year. While East Valley does graduate five seniors, the core of his squad returns next year for a third straight run at the state finals.

“I look at everyone that was there and I don’t just feel like we should be back. I don’t know, but what we’re not the team to beat next year,” he said.

“We lose a lot to graduation. We graduate five, but three of them have been key to the program: (forward) Amanda Bleisner, (midfielder) McKaylin Hughes and (goalkeeper) Caitlin MacFarlane. I think those are three of the best players to ever take the field for East Valley.”

Bleisner was the Great Northern League offensive player of the year as a junior, but she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee and needed surgery. Still, she returned midway through the regular season and was again an offensive force.

Hughes has been an anchor in the midfield throughout her career, and MacFarlane had a stellar season in goal.

But it’s the junior class that Escobar has been excited about for the past three seasons. The group began breaking into the starting lineup as freshmen, when the Knights still played in the Greater Spokane League and came one win away from reaching the Class 3A playoffs.

“We lost to North Central in a playoff,” the coach explained. “We beat them 5-0 during the regular season, but in the playoff we couldn’t get anything to go in and they managed to score a goal, and we lost 1-0. That was an important loss for this group because we learned that you really have to keep pushing and never let up because the ball bounces funny sometimes.”

As sophomores the group helped power EV across the state for the school’s first berth in the state Class 2A semifinals. The Knights lost the semifinal and fell again in the consolation game to claim a fourth-place trophy.

Juniors made up the majority of the EV roster this year, with 11 of the 21 players listed in the state program.

So, what did the team learn from last year that helped this year?

“We learned a couple things,” Escobar said. “Last year we made a long day out of it. We drove over Friday and played that same night. I think we had a lot of adrenalin and a lot of nerves and we didn’t really settle down and play the way we can. This year we went over a day ahead of time and used the practice time that they give everyone. We had the chance to get out and actually work out on the field we were going to play on.”

That, in a nutshell, is the biggest roadblock Eastern Washington teams face in the state soccer playoffs. State semifinal and championship games always are scheduled for artificial-turf fields because Western Washington weather in November is wet. Very wet.

That gives teams from Western Washington a big advantage since they generally play many more on turf fields than Eastern Washington teams.

“It’s a big difference,” Escobar agreed. “On turf the ball bounces true every time and it rolls faster. That makes a difference when you pass – we had a lot of passes roll past who it was intended for and roll out of bounds. And it makes a difference when you shoot – if you’re used to it, you can pull the trigger and shoot sooner. We’re used to waiting to make sure we have a true bounce first.

“In those last two games, our opponents would put together possessions that were seven, eight, nine passes long – it made a big difference in length of possession. For us, the best we could do was maybe three or four passes.”

The Knights do their best to get games on turf fields, although there are few in Eastern Washington, including Joe Albi Stadium, Gonzaga Prep and Lampson Stadium in Kennewick.

“I try to get us games against GSL schools,” Escobar said. “We played Gonzaga Prep at Gonzaga Prep, but I also got us games with Central Valley, Mead and Lewis and Clark. I believe in playing the best competition we can get, and it doesn’t get better than that. I mean, we played three teams who were in the Class 4A playoffs.”

This year’s run to the playoffs was a challenge, Escobar said – especially with injuries. That trend continued into the semifinal game. 

Junior defender Kendra Morscheck, the GNL’s defender of the year, fell in the closing minutes of the semifinal game and sat out the final game with concussion symptoms. Junior center midfielder Adriene Turner tore the ACL in her knee during a tryout for the Olympic Development Program and was sidelined for the playoffs.

“I looked at my bench during Saturday’s game and there were three players there who were playing in that same game a year ago,” Escobar said. “But even with the injuries, we still played well. The kids who filled in did a great job – that’s a big part of what has me excited about next year.”

Junior Brittany Dugger was an able replacement at forward while Bleisner was out.

In the final two games, junior Samantha Hilfiker shifted to center midfield and never missed a beat. Sophomore Alex Rankin, too, filled in with an outstanding effort.

“The girls we put in or moved to a different position were great,” he said. “And we have some young players coming into the program who will add to our depth, too. They’re players who might ordinarily get the chance to play right away if it weren’t for this very big, very talented junior class. I’ll be honest. It will be tough to lose this class to graduation after next year, but I think we’ll still be very good when they’re gone.”

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