FRANCONIA >> In October of 2016, the Souderton girls soccer team is a far cry from what it was in October of 2013.
That team, in Sara Cassel’s freshman year, was limping to the finish of a 4-12-1 season, with a dismal 1-11-2 record in the Suburban One League Continental Conference. Cassel, now a senior, is a co-captain of an 8-4-3 team that seems all but certain to capture a home game in the District 1 Class AAAA tournament.
Monday night, Cassel and her seven senior teammates celebrated their Senior Night with a 3-0 win over visiting Methacton. It was a chance for the Souderton community to recognize and celebrate the senior class that’s been at the heart of the team’s resurgence the past three seasons.
“To me, it means a lot,” Cassel, a four-year varsity player, said. “Freshman year, there was no way we would have even thought about getting to playoffs and now senior year, we’re probably going to host a home game it’s going to help us.”
When Chris Felber took over the program before the 2014 season, he inherited a team where being part of the team was looked as fun and just an activity. His goal for that first year was to instill a purpose and pride in putting on a Souderton uniform.
“It’s been cool to see through the years how much we’ve improved and grown,” senior Emily Readinger said. “That’s both everybody as a player and as a program.”
Felber’s first year, the Indians didn’t make the postseason, going 6-11-1 overall and 5-9-0 in the SOL Continental, but they took the first steps toward the end. The Souderton coach said he’s had great senior leaders in all three of his seniors, and those first two classes were also a big part of the groundwork that’s led to this point.
Year two saw the breakthrough, as Souderton started hot, then did enough down the stretch to compile an overall 9-8-2 record, going 6-6-2 in conference play. More importantly, the team qualified for the district playoffs, but drew a familiar foe in Pennridge and lost in the first round.
Still, the progress was there and it was time for those sophomores of two years prior to take over the helm of the program.
“We had to work as a team,” Readinger said. “I think in the past, it was players, not working as individuals but more of doing it for yourself and not for your school and it’s been a really big step to work together as a team and achieve what we’ve achieved.”
“We connected a lot more this year,” Cassel said. “We were used to playing with other last year and we stayed with mostly the same people, so that was a big help.”
Souderton’s hallmark has been defense, with the team surrendering more than two goals in a single game just once this season. Fittingly, that’s where many of the seniors make their mark. Cassel has been an all-league performer for years, one of those center backs that just seems to always be there to make a tackle, head a ball or boot a clearance well down the field.
Readinger, who’s younger sister Sara is a key piece in the midfield as a sophomore, has had an excellent senior season in defense and the same applies to outside back Sam Plinke. In the goal, senior Vivian Feliciani provides the last line of the formidable defense with a booming kick that can start the attack.
Midfielder Ellie Andrade is usually the smallest player on the field, but she plays with enough heart and grit for someone twice her side. It was two of her corner kicks, one to Cassel and the other to senior Meredith Moore, that set up two of the three goals on Senior Night.
GIRLS SOCCER 28:08 1st half: Souderton 1, Methacton 0
Senior Meredith Moore off senior Ellie Andrade's corner pic.twitter.com/w1q58s2XQ0
— Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3) October 17, 2016
Moore has been a consistent presence in the attack, one of the player who has stepped up after junior forward Cara McCausland went down with injury. The other two seniors, Ashley Nguyen and Allyson Kinsey, may not get as many minutes, but they’ve been just as critical in the program’s growth.
“Making a goal of winning our conference is pretty much impossible, so we wanted to be near the top of the conference, in playoffs for sure and being in the top half is the goal,” Felber said. “Our saying is leave our shirt in a better place, so every year we want to do better than we did last year. The regular season’s been better than last year, so hopefully a home playoff game and a couple wins in districts would be nice.”
Many of the Souderton players, not just the seniors, play on the same club teams, so the idea was to get that style of connected soccer to come over to the high school level. That started with making the Indians a team respected by the rest of the conference, which in turn started with getting the players to take pride in the uniform.
Felber brought an energy to the program, changed the style and tactics of the team and even this season, has changed the formation to put different pieces in play. It was a new approach, but one the players bought into and have continued to take heed in.
“He just brought up the intensity,” Readinger said. “He made it seem like high school isn’t just something to do for fun, we’re here to win. He wants us to have fun while winning, but also to know we have to put in the hard work.”
“It’s a lot more technical,” Cassel said. “We started to focus on footwork. Things got more serious, people started to take it more seriously and that was a good thing.”
The Indians break every huddle with a unified chant of “Family” and after home games, they first gather on the large red S logo at midfield to talk about the game. Monday, the first thing anyone talked about was Nguyen, who got hurt in the first half and eventually had to leave the stadium.
All Felber was looking for early on was commitment and desire and he found his players had it in droves. It makes training sessions serious and in turn work gets done there. That lead to better performances on the pitch and in turn, more wins.
“It’s all about playing for the school and playing for each other,” Felber said. “We’re all one big family and we’re working hard. They’ve come together and play hard for each other.”
Slowly but surely, the Indians started to gain respect in the conference and other teams had to scout and start planning for Souderton. Just a few weeks ago, the Indians battled Pennridge to a draw on the road, a result the players haven’t taken lightly.
The Rams have been a standard in the league and Felber said he enjoys playing Pennridge because it usually ups his team’s level of play and gives his players something to push for. In Souderton’s case, it wasn’t a one-year process and it doesn’t end this year, but this senior class would be the catalyst if the growth continues like it has.
“It means a lot because I feel like we were the heart of it, we were there from the beginning,” Readinger said. “We saw it when it wasn’t so good to when it’s gotten a lot better. It’s, again, the intensity. When you’re on varsity or if you get pulled up or are a swing player, it’s serious. We’re here to win.”
Felber said the one trait that sticks out about the seniors as a whole is their enjoyment of not just matches, but the entire process of being a player, from the practices to the trips and their off field relationships. To Readinger and Cassel , what sticks out is the unity in their class, they’re all close.
Souderton concludes its season with games against Central Bucks West (Tuesday) and William Tennent (Thursday). The Indians were the No. 11 ranked team in the most recent District 1-AAAA power rankings, right in line to secure that coveted home game.
The impact of this senior class has been shown in the last three years, but it won’t be done whenever it is. Felber said one thing the two previous senior classes have done is compelled the group to keep striving and surpass what had been done the year before.
“The players that are younger are going to have to step up and just keep the intensity high,” Cassel said. “We haven’t stopped working and that’s what they’re going to have to do.”
Just three seasons ago, Souderton was pretty much a walkover, a team that opponents wanted to see late in the season so they could schedule celebrations for their seniors. Things have changed, thanks to the group that got its celebration Monday night.
“No one wants to play us on Senior Night anymore,” Readinger said.
Top Photo: Mount Saint Joseph’s Angela Gervasi battles for the ball near the sidelines with Souderton’s Allie Trick during their game on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. (Bob Raines/Digital First Media)