ABINGTON >> When the Abington Friends School’s girls soccer team gathered for its first day of practice, it had 13 players, a couple tough years behind it and a new coach.
After Tuesday, the Kangaroos are 5-5, they have 22 players listed on their roster and first-year head coach Jay Scheets had taken great strides in starting the new culture and beliefs he wants to define the program. There is a good balance in the program between coach and athlete, something Scheets wanted to have because it’s how he’s always felt.
With Tuesday’s 8-1 win over the visiting Solebury School, Abington Friends is in a position to close out its season building on the things that were installed back at the very end of the summer.
“I give the same respect to them that they give to me, we have created a certain balance where they understand Coach needs to say a couple words, but they have the opportunity to say their words,” Scheets said. “It’s very important to create that balance. I’ve noticed with the AFS staff that it’s their philosophy too and something that’s carried true with me as an individual even before I came to this school.”
The Kangaroos are quite young, with just three seniors on the team. After the first couple of practices, new players started to show up and they kept coming out, even after the season started. Not all of them stayed, but many did, drawn by the new air around the team.
“It’s the feeling,” senior co-captain Kara Brownlie said. “We’re playing as a team this year and respecting and trusting one another. It’s a different dynamic. Coach Jay has really helped with that, changing it around and making it fun and getting us excited.”
Brownlie and fellow senior Avery Webster are the two permanent co-captains, elected not because of their class standing or tenure with the team, but through dialogue between all players and the staff. Additionally, Scheets instituted a weekly “honorary captain”, a third player elected to wear a captain’s band in games that is chosen by their teammates.
Jade Young, a basketball player in the winter, is the team’s third senior, a late addition to the roster. Both Webster and Brownlie, who each scored and assisted a goal on Tuesday, have been strong leaders.
“We’ve come together a lot as a group,” Webster said. “Even this game, I feel bad for the other team because of the score and we’ve been in that situation, but as a team and a whole, it was a good feeling.”
Seniors with a new coach are in a sometimes tough predicament. In Scheets’ case, many of the things he’s hoping to instill and build, like adding a JV team, won’t happen for a year or two, so this year’s seniors won’t see a lot of the payoffs.
But as four-year players in the program, Webster and Brownlie want to see the team succeed, both in the short and long-term. Some of their teammates this year don’t have the skill or experience the two of them have, but they’ve been sure to be encouraging and welcoming to anyone who came out.
“It’s my fourth year here and it’s definitely changed a lot,” Webster said. “The last few years, it’s been hard to work to even get the team out there. But now that I’m a captain, and that’s what I’ve wanted and have been in their shoes as an underclassmen, I know what it’s like. As an upperclassmen, I want to give them what I wanted as a freshman, or try to.”
Being a big part of the first steps is still something to take pride in.
“It definitely is, just seeing how we’ve grown this year in how we’re playing and the team itself, I know that’s going to carry on,” Brownlie said. “Jay will carry it on, the players coming back will carry it on.”
It’s not just the two captains of course. Brownlie said a lot of what Scheets has done in practice is meant for the less experienced players, but it hasn’t stopped the more skilled players from jumping in, giving advice and showing the way.
“By having that compassion for not only getting better themselves but watching other players improve as well and giving them guidance, it shows a lot about the character in any person to say ‘I have the talent,’ and this is something I can give back,” Sheets said. “I feel that way as a coach and I’ve been able to see it with the players that they know it’s going to carry through the rest of the team.”
Of course, it’s one thing to talk about building something and another thing to have it happen but so far, Scheets has seen the things he, assistant coach Mark Stetina and the experience players showing and pointing out taking hold. Scheets expects mistakes to be made; all he wants is that they don’t keep being made over and over.
For players like junior Ruth Bekele, the team’s honorary captain against Solebury, the growth continues with them next season.
“We have to keep that team mentality there,” Bekele said. “We’ll look to bring more people in, we have incoming freshmen and getting those girls excited to play with the other underclassmen and upperclassmen.”
Webster and Brownlie said they’ve been excited to see how much their teammates have grown during the season and Brownlie added one of her goals for the rest of the season is not to get shutout again. AFS doesn’t have a win in Friends School competition, but it has been close.
However, wins and losses aren’t the measuring stick this season and the players have been making sure they’re having fun, regardless of the outcome.
“For the seniors, I want them to reflect on what things had been to the point it is now and whether that’s on the field, or in the classroom or even into any type of job or field that just because things are tough, we look at a couple different perspectives and see there can be a change and we can make a difference,” Scheets said. “I’m glad to be a part of showing them that little gate. They have to walk through that door to see they can be of importance to the next generation or the next player or person standing up. Finishing with that integrity is what it comes down to.”
Top Photo: Solebury School’s Kelly Hochenberger advances the ball as Abington Friends School defender Jade Young gives chase during their game on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. (Gene Walsh/Digital First Media)