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2023 Preview: Girls soccer has high hopes coming off successful 2022 campaign

The Woodstock Academy girls soccer team feels like there is always a target on its back.

That will be especially true in 2023.

The Centaurs are coming off a 14-5-2 season which saw them capture the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I regular season crown and the ECC tournament title.

They also advanced to the Class L quarterfinals for the first time since 2003.

“Those of us that were around last year will certainly remember it and strive to reach the goals that we know we must reach to get back there,” Woodstock Academy coach Dennis Snelling said. “We’re proud of it but this is a fresh year. We have to start all over.”

Especially since there will be a key ingredient missing.

Grace Gelhaus has moved on to play Division I college soccer and has taken her 25 goals and 11 assists with her.

“Grace was such a powerhouse in the middle,” said senior captain Kayla Leite. “We just have to find a new dynamic, a style of how to play, and once we find that, we will be pretty good.”

Leite is, in a manner of speaking, a new addition to the team.

She spent last year in the role of team manager with an ACL injury.

“I love soccer so it’s really nice to be back and be a part of the team, playing on the team and not just being on the sideline,” Leite said.

Snelling is used to replacing that core player.

It happens just about every year in high school soccer.

“But when it’s a senior like Grace, it’s hard to just say that we will put someone else in that spot. Someone else has to step up and become the centerpiece of the offense,” Snelling said.

There are players capable of doing so.

Junior Leah Costa finished second in scoring for the Centaurs with 13 goals and seven assists.

Fellow juniors Isabella Selmecki (4 goals, 1 assist), Bella Mawson (3,2) and Juliet Allard (2,2) also posted scoring stats. Senior Kendall McCormack will also contribute this year.

“We have maybe eight players coming back who have scored. We know we have speed, we know we have kids who can score. It’s the matter of can we win the ball? Can we get the most opportunities per game? Those are things that we’re unsure of,” Snelling said.

The Centaurs also lost some key midfield contributions from Lennon Favreau, Maya Orbegozo and Paige Owens as well as Gabby Couture and Gabbie Brown up front; Abby Morin, Magdalena Myslenski and Haley Whitehouse in back and Fiona Rigney in goal.

“I think we have to establish who the center-midfielders will be since it was Grace and Lennon the whole year last year and we relied on the center-backs to play just defense for them. It’s a matter of finding new players to step up into the center-mid role. It’s hard to fill. It’s hard to find players who can play both ways for the whole game. Usually kids have either defensive or offensive mindsets. We will see what we can find,” Snelling said.

Leite, juniors Bella Rawson and Emma Massey, sophomores Kaylee Saucier and Campbell Favreau and freshman Elise Coyle are all battling for playing time in the middle.

The defense is solid.

“I love the defense,” said senior keeper and captain Rebecca Nazer with a smile.

Senior Taylor Lamothe, junior captain Freya Robbie and classmate Macy Rawson, sophomores Payton Leite, Vayda Payne and Isabel D’Alleva-Bochain and freshman Rita Rawcliffe will anchor the back.

The interesting thing is that it will be the first time ever that the Leite sisters are teammates on the same team.

“We have never played together before,” Kayla Leite said. “People have said that we would play well together so I’m excited to see what we can do. We’re always challenging each other.”

Nazer and sophomore Ellary Sampson will man the goal.

“The high balls, got to get to those,” Nazer said with a smile when asked what she has been working on in the net. “It’s something that I have to work on but there has been progress and I’m getting better at it. I think I’ve grown in confidence and talking to the team. My freshman year, I didn’t talk much. Now, I’m yelling a lot, staying positive, talking to the girls at halftime, uplifting them. I think I’ve made some positive shifts in several ways.”

The big key for Woodstock Academy?

“Passing,” said Snelling. “We really have to get in tune with each other because we have a lot of players who haven’t played together. It took three or four days just to get to know each other’s names. We really just have to get the team to come together.”

Can the Centaurs get back to their 2022 heights?

Why not?

“I think we just need to build confidence,” Snelling said. “If we have a team that can get to the ECC tournament, we will have a lot of warm up games for it, high-level games like Wethersfield and Granby. We’ve been to the tournament something like seven of the last 10 years, so we’re always looking to get there and the kids always have that goal.”