Editor’s note: Extracurricular activities, including athletics, for Jefferson County public schools have been postponed until at least April 6. We present the spring sports previews on the presumption that the spring sports seasons will start on or after that date. For updated information, check myleaderpaper.com.
Fun is at the center of the Northwest girls soccer team’s season.
“We are very young, but I think we have the ability to win games and shock some teams,” Northwest head coach Dave Willis said.
Willis has coached the girls for five years and has been the head coach of the Lions boys for 12. He said there will be games this spring where nine freshmen and sophomores are on the field at the same time.
“I graduated a great senior class that was full of great leaders, great athletes and good players,” Willis said. “It will be exciting to see the progress this season.”
Northwest finished 13-10-2 last season after losing to Jackson 2-1 in double overtime of the Class 4 District 1 championship. The Indians have been a thorn in the Lions’ side for years, having knocked them out of the state playoffs three straight years. Northwest won its last district title in 2016 – by beating Jackson. The two schools have met in a district tournament eight times since 2009.
When district assignments were released by the Missouri State High School Activities Association on Friday, Willis found out the Lions were moved from District 1 to District 4 with Eureka, Lafayette and Marquette, all members of the Suburban Conference Yellow pool, the highest tier of teams. Northwest is in the second tier (the Red pool) along with Fox and Seckman. The Warriors replace the Lions in District 1 for the next two years.
“The new district offers a new challenge for my girls,” Willis said. “We have been in the southern district as long as I can remember so I was a little shocked by the move. I like the challenge; our girls will embrace playing the underdog. The district move doesn’t change any of our goals for the season. I like my team no matter who we play. The thing that bums me out is we have developed great rivalries with Seckman and Jackson over the years. We have had some epic district games; it’s just going to be different. It’s a shame for the sake of the rivalries.”
Freshman Lily Shaffrey starts in goal for the Lions while junior Sharayah Donovan recovers from a knee injury she sustained during club soccer season. Willis said he expects Donovan to return sometime in April.
“(Donovan) is a phenomenal leader and has the ability to win games for us,” Willis said.
Junior Katelyn Long was selected to the Red pool team last season after the forward scored 10 goals and assisted on seven others. Long notched the game-winning goal against Seckman in the district semifinals.
“She is a wrecking ball up front with a nose for the goal,” Willis said. “She scored some huge goals for us last year.”
Senior defender Jillian Ems returns for her fourth year on the Lions’ varsity. She was also an all-conference pick last spring. Ems was nicknamed “Honey Badger” by her teammates for her tenacious style of play. Last year, she started in the backfield and moved to center attacking midfielder to generate more offense and responded, with six goals and seven assists.
“She can play any position on the field,” Willis said. “She will most likely be called upon to solidify a backline that graduated four starters.”
Sophomore Grace Lauman started at holding midfield last year, but she’ll be moved to the center back position to help strengthen the back line.
“She is a tough player, communicates well and is improving with decision-making and leadership.”
Kylee Parker, a senior, became a more complete player by the midpoint of last year. Willis said Parker, also a four-year varsity player, became a force in the midfield.
“We are looking forward for her to continue her growth at that position and log a bunch of minutes,” Willis said.
Injured the first part of last season, sophomore Hallie Becker slowly worked her way into the lineup in the midfield.
“She was a big part of our offense at the end of the season,” Willis said. “This year she will be driving the offense as the center attacking midfielder. She has vision, the ball on a string and has a high soccer IQ.”
Willis said freshman forward Abby Rauscher is the wild card for the Lions this year. Willis has seen glimpses from Rauscher that lead him to believe she can fill nets with goals.
“She has good size for a freshman and good speed,” Willis said. “If she can develop into the threat that I believe she could be by the end of the year, we are going to be a tough team offensively.”
The rest of the Northwest starters are sophomore back Talia Griffonetti, junior back Molly Pemberton, junior midfielder Haley Parker and forward Alayna Stawizynski.
Willis said the Lions have the ability to possess the ball and have plenty of capable attackers. They will play a high-pressure defense most of the time.
“I really believe we will go as far as our defense takes us,” Willis said. “We have always been tough on set pieces. I think this season will be the same.”
Macy Davis and Olivia Stahlman were Northwest’s leaders last year, but both graduated. Willis is eager to see who steps into their place.
“My biggest goal is for us to grow into a tough, resilient group that comes together and fights for each other every game,” Willis said. “I love winning, and I think we will do our fair share of that, but my goal is to maximize our ability and grow throughout the year. Being as young as we are, laying a strong foundation is extremely important.”