Columbia has been a success story this season under first-year coach Jamey Bridges.
But with freshmen dotting the Eagles’ roster, there may be even brighter days ahead for Bridges, a Granite City High graduate who knows a thing or two about winning.
“We have a good freshman class and they’ve really stepped up,” said Bridges, 39, who replaced former coach Steve Ross. “Right now, we’re starting four (freshmen), and the first two off the bench are freshmen. We’re utilizing six of them on a consistent basis. That doesn’t include the backup goalie. She’s getting minutes as well. It’s a great freshman class.”
The freshman starters are midfielders Fae Harrell and Sophia Bonaldi, forward Chloe Graff and defender Jenna Jackson. Midfielder Claire Thebeau, defender Madison Mehrmann and goalkeeper Rylee Ioria provide help off the bench.
“It’s a real good group. It’s a tribute to that freshman class,” said Bridges, whose team is 9-5-2 overall. “Seven of them contributing at the varsity level? I’ve never seen that. To see seven contribute is unreal for me. Some girls just need the opportunity.”
Harrell has been a force with five goals and a team-leading 10 assists. Graff has four goals and one assist, while Bonaldi has chipped in with two goals and two assists.
But perhaps most important to Columbia’s success has been its returning players.
Midfielders Lauren Kaempfe (15 goals, six assists) and Lauren Tolan (11 goals, three assists) and defenders Casey Wood and Hannah Heller graduated, but players like senior goalkeeper Alison Riddle, senior defender Allison Murphy, junior defender Kalee Jackson, junior midfielder Madelyne Juenger and speedy junior forward Blair Wittenbrink have more than plugged the gaps.
Junior defenders Morgan Glaenzer and Sam Bostick and sophomore midfielder Taylor Parks also are key performers. Parks and Juenger, like Farrell, have five goals.
Wittenbrink, who had eight goals and eight assists as a sophomore, was moved from midfielder to forward eight games into the season and has amassed nine goals and three assists. Three of her goals were against top competition from the west side of the river: Rockwood Summit, Cor Jesu and traditionally tough Nerinx Hall.
“Blair is probably one of the fastest people I’ve ever coached. She’s quick,” Bridges said. “I’ll put her up against a lot of the boys any day. She’s a little gnat. She’s always pestering the back four and is so fast. Every team we’ve played, she’s been contending (for goals). She gives teams fits. Early in the season, she wasn’t (finishing). But she’s grown into that role.”
Bridges said the Eagles’ 1-1 tie against Nerinx Hall on Thursday was a significant accomplishment. Nerinx Hall defeated Columbia 8-0 in 2014 and 4-0 last year.
“For us, a small school, playing that high a level of competition and to walk away with a tie ... They scored 1:20 in,” Bridges said. “For them to score 1:20 in and then for us to hold them for the next 78 minutes, that was huge.”
Columbia’s five losses and two ties have come against teams that own a combined record of 61-22-8. Alton, which has defeated the Eagles twice, including a 3-0 decision Monday when the Eagles played without three starters because of sickness, is 10-3-2. Edwardsville is 13-2-1, Waterloo is 12-3-2 and Rockwood Summit is 15-1-1.
“We’re winning when we’re supposed to win, but we’re competing when we’re playing the bigger schools and not supposed to win,” Bridges said. “That’s what I’m looking for. I can walk away with a 1-1 tie (against Nerinx Hall), a 4-2 loss (against Cor Jesu) and a 3-1 loss (to Rockwood Summit) and go, ‘Hey, we’re building and we’re getting better.’”
Riddle has been a rock in goal. She has eight shutouts, five of them solo, along with 87 saves and a 1.41 goals-against average.
“She’s really good. She’s one of the best I’ve seen,” Bridges said. “The Nerinx game, for me ... When you say that was the game of her life, that’s an understatement. I wish I got to coach her longer. She made two saves in the Nerinx game that had their coaches shaking their heads. She stepped up huge.”
Bridges consistently stresses the importance of mental toughness. He has seen progress.
“Mentally, they’ve become tough and I’ve been pleased about that,” Bridges said. “I tell them every game, ‘This is a statement game. How can you make a statement with the way you play today?’ They’ve really run with that.
“When we play the way we can play, we’re really good. We’re tough to beat. A lot of the goals we’ve given up are just simple mistakes. I think I’ve been most impressed with the character. When they’re down, they’ve really battled back.”
Bridges played for legendary coach Gene Baker at Granite City. He also has a deep appreciation for Columbia boys coach and Belleville West girls coach Jason Mathenia, having served four years as an assistant under Mathenia.
“I’ve learned so much from him,” said Bridges, who also pointed out the relationship he has had on the sidelines with Tony Segobiano, another assistant under Mathenia.
And, of course, Bridges credits Ross, a Belleville West graduate, for aiding his transition into being a head coach.
“It’s been pretty smooth,” Bridges said. “(Ross) left an incredible foundation. When the foundation is right, it’s easy to come in and build on something. I attribute that to him and his program. And these seniors have made it real easy. They’ve really helped. All the girls have made it easy. They’ve adjusted (to me) great.”
A negative for Columbia was the loss of sophomore midfielder Taylor Kaempfe, who on March 24 against Notre Dame suffered her third ACL tear in the last three years, two in her right knee.
“She stopped real quick and went down,” Bridges said. “She diagnosed herself. After already doing it twice, she knew what she did. Four days later, she was in surgery.”
Columbia is seeded first in the Class 1A Columbia Regional. The Eagles will face sixth-seeded Wesclin in the first round May 10.
“If you would have told me at the beginning of the year that this is where we would be, I would be happy with that,” Bridges said. “We’ve got to take care of business.”
Althoff, East to meet
Belleville West already has clinched the Belleville city championship with victories over Belleville East and Althoff.
East (9-6) and Althoff (7-6-1) will battle for the runner-up spot at 5 p.m. Wednesday at East, before the junior-varsity contest at about 6:30. The Lancers are coming off a 5-1 loss to Incarnate Word on Saturday. East defeated host Waterloo 2-0 on Friday.
Althoff bounced back from a 1-0 loss to Triad on Thursday with a 2-1 victory over Gibault on Saturday. The Crusaders are seeded second in the Class 1A Anna-Jonesboro Regional and will play eighth-seeded Metropolis at 4:30 p.m. May 10.
Gibault, seeded third in the Anna-Jonesboro Regional, will face the host Wildcats, seeded seventh, in the other semifinal at 4:30 p.m. May 11. If Althoff and Gibault both win their first-round games, the championship will be played at a time to be determined May 14 at McKendee University in Lebanon or Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
The Class 2A and Class 3A seeds will be released Thursday by the Illinois High School Association, followed by the pairings Friday.
Belleville News-Democrat Girls Soccer Rankings
Rankings for metro-east teams; voting by area coaches and News-Democrat staff. First-place votes are in parentheses; records through Monday.
Also receiving votes: Waterloo (12-3-2), Triad (9-3-2), Columbia (9-5-2), O’Fallon (5-5-3), Althoff (7-6-1), Mater Dei (8-6-1), Gibault (5-8), Freeburg (6-8-1).