This article was updated at 9:45 a.m. on March 27.
No soccer team in the area is primed for a better start than the South Lakes girls this year. The return of all 11 starters to their rejuvenated lineup combines with a relatively soft early-season schedule to pave the way for some serious momentum in the coming weeks.
Yet the Seahawks aren’t planning to get too cocky, not after what happened to them last year. A program steeped in defeat suddenly found itself boasting a 6-1-1 record by mid-April, but everything unraveled down the stretch. South Lakes won just one of its final six games, its downward spiral punctuated by a heartbreaking loss to Langley in the eighth round of penalty kicks in the Liberty District quarterfinal.
“I think we let our foot off the gas a little,” said Mike Astudillo, now entering his second year as the Seahawks’ coach. “This year we’re going to step on the gas all the way through.”
Astudillo encourages his players to approach the 2014 season the same way they approach every game: Maintain your mental toughness throughout, especially during the first and last five minutes of play. He wants them to set the tone early and play for the kill late, creating a trajectory that creeps upward rather than bottoming out over time.
Astudillo’s desire to keep his team fresh over the course of a grueling season won’t change his unforgiving approach to training. Just as they did last year, the Seahawks endured afternoon practices paired with occasional 5 a.m. workouts during tryouts last month, a ritual their coach plans to continue throughout the season depending on how they play.
Rather than dampen their spirits, Astudillo’s daunting training regimen has only pushed his players’ excitement even further. The Seahawks believe they need to go the extra mile to gain the upper hand in a perennially difficult conference, so they embrace any opportunity they get to work together.
“It’s a South Lakes thing. They just love the school,” Astudillo said. “Starting last year when I would get them to come to these 5 a.m. practices and all the stuff we do like team breakfasts and team dinners, they just love to do it. I’ve coached at other schools where it’s like pulling teeth trying to get them to do the extra stuff. These kids get after it.”
All the energy pulsating on the practice field stems from perhaps the most talented lineup in school history. Everyone is back for South Lakes this year, including first-team all-region goalkeeper Sara Vigen, a junior anchoring one of the sturdiest defenses in the area. With interest from Miami, Davidson and Elon among others, Vigen has impressed many with her acumen around the goal, but it’s her constant leadership that makes her most valuable to the team.
“Every single day she’s the kid who reminds all the other kids of everything they need to do, and they all respect her,” Astudillo said. “But beyond that, technically, she’s just tough as nails. She’s got no fear. She comes screaming out of the goal and takes the ball off the forward’s foot like it’s nobody’s business.”
Sophomore defender Gabby Alcantara adds more poise to the Seahawks’ back line, and joining her this year will be Brooke O’Donnell, a heady freshman who can hold down the center back position. O’Donnell’s arrival pushes other players up the field, which should benefit a South Lakes attack that struggled to find the back of the net last year. Meaghan Nally, who plays right back for her club team at FC Virginia, will likely move into the midfield this season, and junior midfielder Elise Andrich, who led the team with nine goals last year, should see more opportunities to press from the forward position.
“We all mesh really well together,” said Nally. “We all played together last year, and these freshmen coming on should make us better.”
The team’s other key freshman is Abby Alexa, a diminutive striker who possesses lightning quickness with the ball at her feet. Alexa also thrives in the attacking third, as does Caitlyn Christopher, a dangerous senior playmaker who sat out last season with an ACL injury. Senior midfielder Ellen Gose, who is committed to play at the College of Charleston next year, provides yet another attacking option, having also healed from a knee injury that kept her out for much of last season.
All the returning experience means South Lakes shouldn’t struggle to establish cohesion in the early going. Even the freshmen bring a level of familiarity to the table.
“They both play for my [club] coach on the younger team, so we kind of have a similar style of play,” Andrich said. “They’re both really calm and relaxed on the ball and confident. They’re trained well, so I know that they can really help out the team.”
With defending district champion Stone Bridge now moved down to Division 5, this could well be the year South Lakes breaks through for its first conference title since 1980. To get there, though, they’ll have to overcome teams like Madison, Langley and Yorktown, strong sides also bringing plenty of talent back to the pitch this spring.
The Seahawks set the tone with a 5-0 rout over Wakefield in their season opener last Wednesday. Their fate this year will hinge on whether they can keep that pace going into June.
The original version of this story mistakenly characterized interest from a university as a firm scholarship offer.