Struggling through an injury-plagued season in 2016, the OTHS girls soccer team and veteran coach Craig Dippel are looking to improve significantly this spring.
Last year’s squad managed only five victories after a string of very competitive campaigns, and the Lady Panther booters are intent on returning to form with a senior-laden cast of players that Dippel believes has the right stuff to initiate a reversal of fortunes.
“From the start of pre-season practice, this group has been a very cohesive unit,” Dippel said. “Their work ethic has been exceptional. They are a very close-knit and work well together. That cohesiveness, along with improved strength and conditioning, will translate into success on the field. I think that we will surprise some people as the season progresses.”
In order to realize success, the Lady Panthers will face challenges, particularly when facing-off against their Southwestern Conference foes. Arguably, the strongest conference south of the Chicago metroplex, the SWC presents a veritable mine field of soccer powerhouses including the Collinsville Kahoks, who have won the league title the past six years in succession, Edwardsville and Belleville East.
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“Neither Collinsville nor Edwardsville lost much through graduation,” Dippel said. “Belleville East will be led by an All-State returning player, and Alton had a very young and athletic team last year that will be improved, so the biggest challenge for our girls is to have the confidence to rise to the level of play necessary to compete on even terms with the other schools in the league.”
Ten returning players will carry the load for the Lady Panthers, six of whom are seniors. Heading the list of returnees are four players who are beginning their third season at the varsity level. The veteran nucleus includes senior midfielder Gabby Goerke, senior midfielder Andrea Wieman, junior defender Tamia Cash and junior midfielder-forward Sam Stutsman.
Stutsman, a junior, was O’Fallon’s leading scorer last spring and is expected to produce similar numbers this year’ however, Dippel is quick to point out that several other players on his roster have the potential to be dangerous offensive weapons.
“We have several girls who have the speed and aggressiveness to score,” Dippel said. “Opponents will not be able to focus on stopping just one player. Lauren Cooper, Maggie Sheerin, Amy Muschler, Madison Brake, and Lauren Kalteis can also put the ball in the back of the net. Our versatility on offense should be one of our strengths.”
Junior three-year starter Tamia Cash and senior Jessica Hoffer will anchor the OTHS defense. Cash’s experience will be critical in defining the Lady Panthers’ overall defensive success, according to Dippel. Senior Bri Honma will begin the season as O’Fallon’s goalkeeper, with an assist from freshman Sarah Cooley.
“This will be Honma’s first year in goal at the varsity level,” Dippel said. “We are confident that she will give us consistent play in the net, and she will be backed up by Cooley, who has great potential. Our experienced defenders and midfielders give us a strong overall defense. It should be a major asset along with this team’s improved strength.”
“Most of our players were involved in an off-season strength program and in the pre-season it is obvious that the commitment will pay dividends throughout the year,” Dippel added. “I’m confident with this group of girls that we will come off the field in every game having given everything we’ve got.”
Dippel’s confidence will be put to the test beginning this week as the Lady Panthers begin their 2017 season with the Metro Cup Tournament. The OTHS girls were scheduled to open on Tuesday, playing the winner of the Freeburg-Highland first round game. Either a win or loss in the opener would send them into action today (Thursday). O’Fallon’s first regular season contest is scheduled on the road Monday, March 20 in Marion.