Kicking the game into high gear

Members of the MIHS girls varsity soccer team go through practice drills last week. - Megan Managan/Mercer Island Reporter
Members of the MIHS girls varsity soccer team go through practice drills last week.
— image credit: Megan Managan/Mercer Island Reporter

This is the third week of a look at MIHS fall sports. A new team will be featured each week. Next week: volleyball.

There has been a sea of changes, but somehow it doesn’t feel like much at all is different.

The girls on the Mercer Island High School soccer team have a new coach, new players in different places and the high expectations that finishing second in state brings. But at the same time, it’s a group of friends playing the game, as always.

Ten months ago, the team lost the state finals in a shootout, something that is certainly weighing on their minds this season.

“Basically, we have a high intensity level at practice each day,” said head coach Nicole Nelson. “If it’s dropping, we say, is this what the first-place team in state practices like? It’s just a little reminder.”

Nelson, an assistant on last year’s team, took the head coaching position this year.

Lauren Frank, a senior forward and captain this season, said Nelson is a great fit for the program and that the atmosphere so far this season has been very positive.

Under the new coaching regime, the intensity is high, but it is mostly because the team wants it, said Nelson.

“I always expect the work rate to be high,” she said. “These girls (work hard); the work rate they (had) in the scrimmage (last week) — you can’t really coach that. You can tell them you expect it, but they have to want it themselves, and we’ve got it. I think that’s what will make us successful.”

Captain Tara Nielson said they do have high expectations as a team, but with the group of girls that they have, it should be an obtainable goal.

“It’s different,” Nielson said of the team this year, after losing a large group of seniors. “Everyone has the same goals — it’s not like it’s a different group with different goals. Everyone wants to win.”

The team lost several key players, especially in the mid-field area, last season, but Nelson said they’ve found an easy solution.

“What we’ve kind of done is take starters from other positions and move them into our center midfield,” she said. “That’s where we really lost our players last year. We took three starters from other positions on the field that already have experience and put them there at center-mid to fill those spots.”

The team has neither lack of talent nor difficulty in finding players. The program currently has a swell of sophomores playing at both the JV and varsity levels, but with an upperclassmen-heavy defense, Nelson said it is an area that they will be working on in the future.

“I would say that we are upperclassmen-heavy in our defense,” said the coach. “We are trying to teach some of the younger girls to play defense so that after this year, we aren’t in trouble.”

But for the most part, the team, Nelson feels, is solid.

“We are fast,” she said of the team’s strengths. “We are really speedy, and we work hard all the time. I think that there’s nothing that can stop us because we don’t rely on just one or two people. We can take care of it.”

Helping the team do that, said Nelson, will be players like Frank and Nielson, as well as returning goalie Corey Goelz.

“Our goalkeeper is probably the top goalkeeper in the state,” she said. The Islanders also got a bonus in the form of transfer student Taylor Abrass, an incoming senior transferring from Auburn Riverside after a family move.

“She’s already committed to Western (to play soccer),” said Nelson. “She was a 4A track star at Auburn Riverside last year, so she’s super fast. She’ll be the fastest one in the league. Her personal goal is to score goals this year. She was first team all league down there and then her family moved. She’ll be someone to watch.”

Nelson also said returners such as Celina Solomon, a junior at center-mid, will be stepping up this season.

After winning its first KingCo title in four years last season, the team knows what getting there takes, but also knows the league is as tough as ever.

“We want to be KingCo champs,” said Nielson of the team’s goal for the season. As easy as the words are to say, it is likely not a good portrayal of how hard the quest will be.

“I don’t think there is going to be an easy game in KingCo this year,” said Nelson. “Not at all. Interlake has stepped up, in the past they were the 2A school, but that’s going to be it this year. A lot of the club girls that these girls play with are on at a lot of other KingCo schools, but it’s exciting. I think it better prepares us for state.”

Teams like Juanita, Bellevue, Mount Si and Lake Washington, the newcomer to the 3A conference this year, were all cited as games the girls are excited to play. Nelson listed Bellevue as her game to watch, but for different reasons.

“I’m excited to play Bellevue at home because it’s our only Saturday game of the season, and we’re making it a student night,” she said. “We want all the students from the school to come, we’ll have a barbecue. Bellevue is kind of a league rival, but we’re just trying to make it a huge night.”

On or off the field, whether the Islanders reign again as KingCo champs or not, the team has found something in the difference that’s been the same.

“It’s just a nice group of girls,” said Nelson. “It’s just a really positive atmosphere. People will see that if they come.”

The team’s first game of the season is tomorrow night at Skyline High School. The Islanders play their first home game against Lake Washington on Sept. 14 at 7:30 p.m.

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