Nonnewaug girls soccer hunted but still hunting. By John Nestor
MIDDLEBURY - The hunted is also the hunter this season in Berkshire League girls soccer.
The Nonnewaug girls soccer team is synonymous with league titles and deep playoff runs, a successful program that has become one of the best not just in the area, but in the state.
That puts the Chiefs in an interesting position as the 2012 season gets underway, they will be hunted by every team in the BL while searching for a new identity after some heavy graduation losses that included the loss of a pair of Division I players.
The defending Berkshire League champions, Nonnewaug is the big game on everyone's schedule. The Chiefs have won three of the last four BL titles and advanced to the CLass M semifinals last season. They and are going to get everyone's best effort all season long, something that was evident in the season opener.
The Chiefs got off to a tough start with a 3-2 loss at Litchfield. The Cowgirls made the most of their chances and the Chiefs didn't. It was a sweet win for Litchfield, which hasn't tasted success against Nonnewaug very often over the years, and it immediately raised the question of whether or not this version of the Chiefs has what it takes to be as successful as in the past.
Sydeny spremullo wasn't around to provide a needed clinical strike and Georgia Gibson was not on the field to anchor the defense. They have both taken their games to the next level with Spremullo at Hartford and Gibson at UMass.
Instead Katie Burke provided a pair of goals in the opener but it wasn't enough. But it was also just one loss, and against a team that was coming off an appearance in the Class S title game itself.
"It's a difficult proposition to stay out in front and defend titles when everyone wants to take you down," Nonnewaug coach Nick Sheikh said.
But that is something the Chiefs will have to deal with every time they lace up the cleats. Litchfield and Lewis Mills appear to be threats to Nonnewaug's recent run and the rest of the BL would love nothing more than to take the Chiefs down when they get the chance.
It won't be easy if Nonnewaug's second game is any indication.
Still smarting from the opening loss, Nonnewaug blitzed Shepaug, 7-1. Five different Chiefs scored led by Burke and Michaela Pernell with two goals apiece. Sam DeMuro, Hailey Lehning and Jennifer Winaard also added goals for the Nonnewuaug and Megan Mitchell made nine saves.
It was just the kind of dominant follow-up performance that Sheikh was looking for and that the Chiefs needed.
"Our win at shepaug came down to execution. We had plenty of chances to put Litchfield away but missed far too many opportunities," Sheikh said.
Last season that was rarely a problem. Give Spremullo a sliver of an opening, it was a goal while Gibson did a little of everything and established herself as one of the best players in the league.
But they are both gone making their mark at the college level. Spremullo has appeared in all eight games the Hawks have played this season, making one start. She played a season-high 63 minutes in Hartford's most recent match, a scoreless draw with Temple and notched an assist in her one start, a 5-2 victory over St. Josephs.
Gibson is off to a great start and has started all eight games the Minutewomen have played this season.
It's not easy to replace one player like Spremullo and Gibson, let alone two. But Sheikh isn't looking for anyone to be those players, just accept the roles they filled and lead this new version of the Chiefs.
"The challenge of replacing star players going off to college is that you want the younger kids to follow in their footsteps but not be in the shadow of their peers," Sheikh said. "You want the next group to establish their own identity and that's hard for some high school athletes.
"Going from that role player position to the go-to player is a big jump to make and not everyone has the physical attributes or the mental game for it either. It's an even bigger jump if an athlete hasn't seen lots of minutes beforehand. We've all seen tons of athletes that seem to have the physical attributes but none of the mental strength to keep it all together."
Sheikh will know where his team is mentally pretty quickly this season. The Chiefs get the Cowgirls again and the Spartans twice before their season will be half over. The BL title race will definitely have some shape at the midway point and what kind of team Nonnewaug will be will be evident as well.
It's early, but Sheikh seems to like this group's chances of stepping up and answering the challenge that comes with playing Chiefs soccer.
"This group is starting to gel but it takes about half a season for any team to start to hit their stride," Sheikh said. "Team chemistry appears to be headed in the right direction. Keeping that drive going will be key."