by Andrew Garda
The Montclair Kimberley Academy girls soccer team had a banner year in 2017, literally, winning at least a part of four championships, splitting the Essex County, Prep B and NJSIAA Non-Public B group titles and winning an NJSIAA state sectional title outright.
The road to repeat those accomplishments will be harder for the Cougars, however, as they move up to the elite American Division in the Super Essex Conference.
That puts them in the midst of area soccer powerhouses like West Essex, Glen Ridge and crosstown rival Montclair High School.
Head coach Christie Welsh, entering her third year at the helm, doesn’t think the difference will be as great as it could be, as the team played some of the schools they will be facing in cross play last season.
That’s not to say it will be easy.
“Last year we dropped to the second division, the first year we were in the top one,” she said after a recent practice. “Now we’re back in the American. Obviously now we’ll just have a tougher schedule.”
The Cougars lost prolific goal scorer Kerri McGuire to graduation, but retain a solid core of players to fill the void.
Welsh said that among the many talented athletes, the team will be relying on seniors Lily Pryor, Rylie Frieder, junior Alexis Riley and sophomore Sarah Hobbs.
“Lily for sure, she’s super athletic and versatile. We’ll play her all over the place,” Welsh said. “Rylie is the back for us. We have a lot of lacrosse players who converted to soccer and visa versa, and they are just athletes. Rylie is one of them.”
Hobbs and Riley will join Frieder in the back on defense, and those four will be the core for the Cougars.
Welsh will also look to senior Ally Raff and junior Jaime Fuchs at forward with Katie Hipp filling in at midfielder.
“Katie Hipp came off the bench a lot and provided a spark and can do that again,” Welsh said.
Pryor knows replacing McGuire is a tall order, but what she’s seen in practice has her feeling better about it.
“We lost Kerri, who scored a lot for us, but so far we’ve seen a lot of good players who I know will be very instrumental,” she said. “And in the central midfield we have a lot of good scorers, which is what we need.”
Pryor said versatility is key if the team is going to build on last season’s success. Players need to be ready to step in wherever they are needed.
She knows what she’s talking about too.
“Last year, I literally played every position on the field except goalkeeper,” Pryor said with a laugh. “[Coach Welsh] had me playing left back, central midfielder, outside back, and forward. The new people coming in, they can’t come in and say ‘I only play center-mid.’ What we need is for people to be really open to play any position.”
That advice encompasses both freshman and transfers, because Welsh also has some new talent from those types of players.
“Julia Conforti is from West Essex, and I actually knew her prior to MKA,” Welsh said. “She plays at an elite level of club, and she’s a great, sophisticated, technical midfielder. And then we have Abigail Clothier. Lacrosse is her main sport, so I didn’t know what to expect soccer-wise, but she’s athletic and has a great personality and a good work ethic.”
There are also Marissa Snee and Chloe Skipper, both of whom are freshmen that Welsh expects to contribute immediately.
Meanwhile, in goal, Junior Arianna Jobst will return, something Welsh is very excited about.
“Obviously, my expectations for Arianna are always high and she knows it,” Welsh said. “We’ve talked about it and I think she’s capable of so much more than she already does. Which is amazing, if you think about it because she’s done so well already. I am excited to see how she progresses.”
Jobst is excited as well, because her back line returns are intact, which will make her job easier.
“It’s great to know I have the teammates who support me,” she said. “If anything happens in goal, they can come back and save the team.”
Still, as all the leaders on the team know, this season is going to be challenging.
“We all have to step up because we’re going into a new league,” Jobst said. “I know that I’m going to be stepping up to the plate and everyone else will as well.”