by Andrew Garda

As Montclair Kimberley Academy girls soccer coach Christie Welsh begins her second year at the school, she’s facing one problem that practice and training can’t account for.

The Cougars have just 20 players total on the roster and the attrition this offseason was swift and severe.

Six seniors graduated, a few players transferred out of school, and Welsh lost one of her best players — Jessica Schildkraut — to the Development Academy for US Soccer.

“[Jess was our] engine in the middle,” Welsh said, “but I’m confident that with the players we have, we can fill the role.”

That’s because many of those players are returning and got experience playing on a small (though not this small) roster in 2016.

“We have a lot of good returning players,” Welsh said. “We lost seniors and a center defender, but I think we’ve gained a freshman outside back and we’ve moved people around. The freshman, Sarah Hobbs, did really well for us this preseason. We’ve [also] got a returning goalkeeper who was a freshman last year, Arianna Jobst. She was great last year, so we’re looking to lean on her a bit more this year.”

This has been the theme of the preseason — getting players back into the groove, moving people around into new spots and trying to make sure everyone stays healthy.

“Part of the issue has been learning how much to push versus how much to make sure we’re moving along in a healthy direction,” Welsh said of the offseason. “Because you don’t want to overtrain, you don’t want to do too much. So part of it’s about managing and balancing that.”

Welsh is excited by the talent she has in addition to the returning goalkeeper.

“We’ve got Kerri McGuire returning with Jaclyn Kemly in the midfield. We’ll have a little movement there, and things have been fluctuating. Kerri played in the backfield last year and that might happen again. And Ally Raff, who is a junior and was one of our leading scorers last year.”

Welsh says she’s really excited by Raff, who was hampered by an ankle injury to start the 2016 season, and is hoping the midfielder will get off to a faster start this season.

With a small team, Welsh needs to play younger athletes more than many other varsity teams do, but she’s fine with that.

“My mindset has always been, I don’t care what class you’re in, what age you are — if you can play, you can play,” she said. “You do have to break down some of the barriers because regardless of whether they can play, off the field they can be a little bit timid, being on the younger side.

“For a lot of them [this is] their introduction to playing with players that much older.”

Allowing younger players to vie for spots on the field gives Welsh the chance to move some of her veteran players to new positions where she can take better advantage of their skills.

For example, junior Lily Pryor mostly plays defense but with new members of the backfield, Welsh anticipates moving her forward a lot to take advantage of her athleticism.

Of course, Welsh isn’t going to mess with success completely.

“Alexis Riley is the center back for us, and a very good player who will play in college. We can move her up, but I would rather keep her where she is because she’s [such a] fast and athletic part of the backfield.”

For Welsh, the most important thing has been getting all the pieces to integrate and work as one unit. If that happens, she knows they can win a lot of soccer games.

“Because despite losing some players and changing over, this group ... at its core doesn’t give up,” Welsh said. “They do a good job of fighting through, even if they aren’t the most skilled or the fittest. They keep going and they do that all the time.”