By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
The Eastern Regional High girls soccer team had a tremendous 2022 season, going 22-2-2, winning the South Jersey Coaches Association Tournament and the South Jersey Group 4 championship before falling in the state semifinals to Freehold Township, the No. 1 team in New Jersey.
It’s tough to repeat that kind of success, but halfway through the 2023 season the Vikings are well on their way to matching that type of record, having won 12 of their first 13 games. The only setback was a 1-0 loss to Shawnee on Sept. 26, and only one team — GCIT — has scored more than one goal against Eastern, which had to replace two players on its back line and its goalie.
Last season, goalie Ava Clark had 113 saves in 26 games and posted 19 shutouts. This year, junior Araba Abanyie has taken over and has 54 saves in 13 games while posting eight shutouts.
“We had to replace two outside backs and a goalie and I was very concerned because we didn’t have anybody in mind who could play those positions,” Vikings coach Jamie McGroarty said after Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Paul VI that got Eastern to 12-1. “We knew our two center backs were really good, but we have Kasey (Eustace) and Izzy (Benfield) who have stepped back there and played very well. We have a big senior group. We knew we had almost everybody coming back offensively, and we knew we’d be a scrappy team, but it was the defense I was worried about. But they’ve been lights out back there and they keep us in every game.”
Eastern doesn’t have that one big scorer on offense but the Vikings have been able to spread the wealth and find goals from 13 different players, including a team-high 10 from junior Johnna Gonter, who hadn’t scored a varsity goal in her career prior to this season. Junior Aubrey Benfield has chipped in eight goals and senior Remi Cherkas has six. The Vikings have also had 43 assists on their 47 goals, showing their ability to work together to produce offensive chances.
“We just have to keep working and finding girls who can step up in different situations,” McGroarty said. “We’re trying to figure out a rotation of who is going to play in what situations. We have a lot of new faces and we’re still trying to teach them what we’re doing. But if we play good defense and get good goalie play — if we can do that every game, we’ll be in every game.”
One player who has stepped up big time has been Eustace, normally a midfielder who has been pressed into service on the back line.
“Kasey has played just about every position but had never played in the back before,” McGroarty explained. “But she’s just a tough, energetic kid and she gets better every game. She’s learning a new position and she’s been able to fill one of those spots I was worried about.”
Since the loss to Shawnee, Eastern has ripped off four straight wins and outscored opponents 14-1 during that stretch.
“A loss is never good, but it allowed us to take a step back, take a deep breath and say, ‘OK, we’re not where we need to be yet.’ If you keep winning every game sometimes you get a false sense of security,” McGroarty said. “We didn’t play well (against Shawnee), we were flat that day, so that was a good lesson that you can’t come out and play like that.”
Eastern is starting to look like a team that can challenge for Coaches Cup and South Jersey titles again this fall but they have a tough stretch of games to close out the regular season, including three straight road games against Kingsway, Seneca and Lenape beginning with the Dragons on Friday in Swedesboro.
“Every year our goal is the same — we do our best to try to get in position to win championships. During the regular season you’re trying to put yourself in position where you’re playing home games in the playoffs. That’s why games like (Wednesday’s win over Paul VI) are important because of power points and seeding. We want to play on this field,” McGroarty said. “We have to stay healthy, and everybody says that, but I just want to see us keep working hard and keep getting better. We have a lot of new faces and they are learning what (championship soccer) is all about.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays