Two consecutive strong regular seasons have led to a resurgence for the Pilgrim girls’ soccer program, which has finished as the No. 3 seed in Division II each of those years.
But the resurgence has also come with disappointment, as the heavily favored Pats have failed to get out of the quarterfinal round of the playoffs in either season. They lost 2-1 to sixth-seeded Mount St. Charles in 2010, and then dropped a 2-0 contest to No. 6 Mt. Hope last year.
With 27 combined wins over the last two seasons, the next step is to grab a win in the postseason and establish itself as a legitimate contender within the division.
As a program that hasn’t won a playoff game since it won the Division I championship in 2000, a veteran Pilgrim team is optimistic that the time is now to keep up its regular season success, and then add to it in the playoffs.
“I’m expecting another good year,” Pilgrim head coach Mike Weber said. “I’m expecting to fight for a championship – I’m hoping. With the talent level that we have, it’s within their reach.”
If Saturday was any indication, the Pats are already playing like a team on a mission.
Competing in the Warwick Vets Fall Soccer Tournament, Pilgrim knocked off Division I Toll Gate 1-0 in its first game and then beat D-I Vets 4-0 in the finals to claim the championship.
“This tournament last weekend was a good start, a good stepping stone,” Weber said. “I said to them before the last game, ‘Play this like you were playing for the Division II championship.’ They came out guns blazing.”
The root of the team’s optimism is tied to its returning talent, which it has in droves.
At the striker spot, scoring shouldn’t be a huge issue with three returners poised to carry the load. Senior captains Megan Sullivan and Talia D’Ambruoso headline the list, while sophomore Katie Vieria should take another step forward after a strong freshman campaign.
“Between Meg Sullivan, Talia D’Ambruoso and Katie Vieira, we should be able to put goals on the board,” Weber said. “They’re going to score because they’re just so talented.”
In the midfield, depth is a slight concern but Weber is confident in the girls that will be on the field.
Seniors Nicole Starkey and Niocole Beneduce and junior Haley McCusker are all penciled in as starters. Junior Jen King will also help out.
“That’s a pretty solid base to start from,” Weber said.The way Beneduce throws the ball, it’s another offensive weapon.”
Starkey is currently out with an injury after colliding with a Toll Gate player during Saturday’s game, leaving a gash on Starkey’s forehead. She received three staples in her head, but Weber is hoping she won’t be out for too long.
“I don’t know how long she’ll be out,” Weber said. “We don’t play until the sixth, so it gives her a little bit of time. She came in in great shape, so if it’s a week or so it’s not really going to hurt her all that much.”
The Pats’ defensive unit is the most inexperienced part of its team, yet it still has some key players from a year ago back in the fold.
One of those players is senior captain Heather Wolfenden. Wolfenden served as a captain last year as a junior, and is instrumental to the defense. However, she tore the Anterior Cruciate Ligament in her knee over the spring, and is still doing rehab.
She is hoping to come back towards the end of August or beginning September, which would be roughly six months after the injury.
“That would be amazing,” Weber said. “To get her back would really solidify the defense.”
In the meantime, Pilgrim will make due. Senior Talia Geremia will be the starting stopper after playing behind senior Amanda Ruggieri last year.
Behind her, at sweeper, senior Erica Hammond returns to the fold and serves as a stabilizing presence.
“She’s just rock solid,” Weber said. “She controls the back.”
Flanking her will be junior Claire Birney on one side, and Haley Buco on the other, along with Michaela Giuttari and freshman Olivia DeLuca.
Giuttari will help the team for a month before heading to a school in New Hampshire designed to help her improve her hockey skills.
It’s a tough situation for the Pats, but they’re happy to at least get her for the month.
The goalie spot is still up for grabs at the moment, with incumbent Kayleen Murphy and freshman Hanna page vying for time. Murphy, a senior captain, also has the ability to play defense, and she’ll likely be used in both roles.
She adds to the list of important seniors on the team.
“It’s a good situation to be in because there’s a lot of seniors, and they’ve had a lot of time on the field over the years,” Weber said.
The goal, then, is to send those seniors out with a final season to be proud of.
It’s still early, but Weber knows that with that senior class – as well as a stockpile of talented underclassmen – this might be as good a chance as any to finally get over the hump in the playoffs.
“They remember [the playoff loss last year], but they’re not dwelling on it,” Weber said. “Obviously you’ve got to fight through Exeter-West Greenwich, with back-to-back state championships. I’m hoping for another good year.”
Pilgrim opens the regular season on Thursday, September 6 at North Smithfield at 7 p.m.