Morris and Milford picked up where they left off last season in girls soccer Tuesday.
The Tri-Valley co-champions — who played to a scoreless tie last season in the cross-over — started the season with a rematch at Milford; the Mustangs won 2-1.
Perhaps everyone expected such success from Morris, which went on to win Section Four, Class D, and returns almost its entire squad from last year’s team.
Milford, which pressured Morris until the final whistle Tuesday, might have expected a letdown from last year’s 12-1-3 team. After all, the team lost center forward Avalon Ward and goalie Krista Ransier — a three-year starter — and several other key members to graduation.
Then the Wildcats, the 2010 Section Four winners, suffered an unexpected loss this summer when leading scorer Emilie Mertz tore an ACL in summer league play.
Yet, there they were on Tuesday, the aggressors against the Mustangs, with three good chances to tie the game in the final 10 minutes, leading their coach, Chris Saggese, to turn to his bench in the final minutes and exclaim, “now this is fun, isn’t it?”
Even after the final whistle signified the Wildcats had come up short, Saggese said he felt excited about his team’s performance.
“Everyone knows Morris is one of the top teams, not just in our section, but they are going to be one of the top teams in the state this year,” he said. “We’ve got five freshmen and two eighth graders playing key roles for us. To come out here and be competitive with them is such a positive.”
A few moments earlier, Saggese said as much to his team, telling it, “They didn’t expect this from you guys. No one expects anything from you guys this season, but they are wrong. Remember how (losing) feels. I hope you don’t like it. If we keep playing like this, we won’t have to lose again. If we play like this, we will see them again, and we will be playing into November.”
To do that, Milford will have to get leadership from Francesca Green, one of only a handful of seniors on the team. With Green at center midfield, and Saggese’s daughter, Hannah, at center fullback, or at times in reverse, the Wildcats are strong up the middle and tough on defense.
On offense, freshman Addy Lawson will have to make up for the loss of Ward and Mertz. That is, if Lawson doesn’t end up replacing Ransier in goal. On Tuesday, Saggese tried her both as a forward and as the keeper, one of three goalies he used — Green and Rukiye Henderson were the others.
“We are unsettled at goalie,” he admits. “We have to replace a three-year starter. We’re trying some things out there to see what works.”
Wherever she ends up, Lawson will need to be a force. A three-sport phenom as an eighth-grader, she has a lot to prove this season as she matures into her skills and draws the best defenders from the other teams.
Tuesday, she played the first half of the game in goal, giving up one score with 52 seconds left in the half on McKenna Hungerford’s booming kick from more than 25-feet away. The shot went over Lawson’s head and into the left corner of the goal.
A little over two minutes into the second half, Lawson — now at forward — tied the game on a breakaway, beating Morris goalie Katie Humphris to the left corner.
As they did for the first 39 minutes of the game, the Wildcats and Mustangs played the next 17 minutes in what seems to be their natural state — a tie game. Amanda Flint broke the tie with 20:29 left, taking a pass from Alexis Forgit on the right side and banging it off the left pole and past Henderson for the 2-1 lead.
Milford pressed Humphris and Morris for another tie late in the game. Humphris, whose 11 saves were nearly twice as many as the Wildcat trio, either got to every ball, or watched with relief as they sailed over the goal.
With 6:50 left, Lawson got the ball in the box behind the defenders, but just missed getting a good shot off. Instead, it bounced off her foot and to a Morris defender who passed it back to Humphris. Despite protests from Milford for an illegal pass back, the referees let the game play on.
A minute later, Hannah Saggese kicked a direct kick that went over the goal, missing by just inches. With 90 seconds left, Green left her own goal to try another direct kick; the result was the same, this one missing high by about a foot.
“The goals we gave up tonight were due to mistakes,” Saggese said. “We can fix those mistakes.
“The thing is, I have a great group of girls. They work hard, they listen, it is really great to coach them.”
Saggese won’t predict a return to the Tri-Valley title game, and he doesn’t see a favorite in the East Division, but he doesn’t have any trouble picking one in the West.
“This year, it is Morris, and then there is everyone else. We’re in there with everyone else. Anybody could win it,” he said.