It’s not often that a high school sports team finishes its best season in program history and feels the outcome was incomplete.
Then there’s the Tallwood Lady Lions soccer team.
Tallwood’s last game of the 2015 regular season ended in a 2-2 tie in double overtime against First Colonial, a match in which the Lions had held a 1-0 lead in the second half. Tallwood needed a win for percentage points to earn the fourth and final seed for the Coastal Conference tournament. The Patriots beat them out for that final spot by .5 a game.
A season that did not end in a loss finished instead under a cloud of “what ifs?”
Then-first-year coach Danny McVey knew his group could compete in a loaded conference. He has since used last year’s finish to motivate his players and remind them how special this year can be, with nine of 11 starters back.
“Oh my god, we were so close,” senior attack captain Ciara Sekeet said about last season’s end. “Danny keeps bringing it up, holding it over our heads. He’s trying to get us to go out and get it.”
The Lions have carried that chip on their shoulder into a 5-1 start to this season. They have looked even better than they did last spring.
Tallwood has outscored (37-6), out-shot (152-43) and generated more corners (32-9) than their opponents in six games.
“Now we’re coming for revenge pretty much,” Sekeet said. “Ever since (that game) we all know we could do it.”
McVey, a 1995 Tallwood graduate, has taken a middling program to new heights with a system that emphasizes controlling time of possession and creating higher-percentage scoring chances.
“As long as we keep possession, the other team can’t shoot the ball and score,” McVey said. “Moving the ball around, avoiding pressure and not forcing anything is key.”
McVey’s system has benefited from the right mix of selfless players and a revamped offensive attack.
Last year’s Lions relied heavily on captain Rosie O’Neal’s production on the front line. O’Neal finished with 23 goals as one of the most lethal scoring threats in the area. The predictability of Tallwood’s offensive game plan — asking O’Neal to fight double teams and beat top defenders consistently — eventually haunted the Lions in conference play. After a sizzling 6-1-1 start, they finished the season 8-5-2.
This spring, Tallwood’s attack has a multitude of catalysts, lightening the offensive load for O’Neal.
Sekeet is in the midst of a breakout season. She has already scored a team-leading 10 goals after notching eight all of last season, transforming into a weapon from the left wing.
“I’m playing with more confidence, calling for the ball, not afraid of going for it,’ Sekeet said. “Once I score one, it’s like I gotta get two, then three.”
Two freshmen, Alayna Carter and Lucy Shea, have popped into starting roles and proven instrumental for Tallwood’s attack depth. Carter sets up behind O’Neal in the midfield and has transitioned smoothly into creating special connections up the middle with the senior play maker. Shea flanks wide right of O’Neal and uses her speed to beat defenders and generate better scoring chances.
McVey said 10 of his 18 field players have scored at least one goal.
“Its a new force that defenses have to deal with,” O’Neal said. “We have so many more options. It’s hard for defenses to keep up with our speed. We’re getting more chances and better looks.”
Tallwood’s defense is anchored by senior captain Frances Hermoso, whom McVey calls “the ace in the hole.” Frances and senior back Maggie Aydlett have back-lined a defense that has allowed just six goals in six games.
“She can close down anybody,” McVey said of Hermoso. “She’s got speed, she’s aggressive and reads the game very well.”
Tallwood is on pace to set another high for the program’s best start to a season.
While the early success has given the Lions confidence, the players know all too well that the real season starts in May with conference play. Playing well against traditional powerhouses when the Coastal Conference schedule begins will be crucial for Tallwood’s confidence
moving toward the end of the season.
“The group of death,” as McVey calls the Coastal field, this spring added Kellam, last year’s Atlantic Conference champs. Cox and Landstown returned experienced rosters that last spring reached the 6A state final four, where the Falcons finished as the runner-up. First Colonial is off to the Beach’s hottest start at 8-0 after winning just nine games last spring.
Claiming a top-four spot in this year’s conference race — let alone one of two berths in the region tournament — may be as tough as ever. The Lions vow they have never been more prepared.
“I think we’re going to surprise some teams,” McVey said.
Said Hermoso: “We’re stronger this year, and I know that we’re coming for everybody.”