Defense shines for No. 5 Belle Vernon girls soccer after formation change
Before the season started, Belle Vernon girls soccer coach Tom Cameron and his staff decided to tweak the team’s formation in hopes of creating more scoring opportunities.
The Leopards went from a four-person back line to a three-person back line. The trio had to provide a strong defense for the plan to be successful.
The change is going as well as they hoped.
The Leopards are scoring at a high clip, and they are putting up a fair number of clean sheets. That has led to an 8-0 mark in Section 2-3A and a three-game lead in the standings over Greensburg Salem and Laurel Highlands.
Belle Vernon has outscored opponents 47-3 in section play, with six shutouts, and is well on its way to a 16th consecutive playoff berth.
The fifth-ranked Leopards (9-2 overall) are getting scoring up top from the sophomore tandem of Jillian Butchki and Isabella Laurita. Juniors Marissa Grubbs and Kaitlyn Hrycko and freshman Adeline Guess, meanwhile, have been shutting opponents down on the back end.
“I challenged my girls in the back to play solid defense and keep the goalkeeper clean, and so far, knock on wood, they’ve come through for us,” said Cameron, who is in his second season at Belle Vernon. “The formation allows us to counterattack more, generate more opportunities, and the more opportunities you have the better the chance you have to put some in the net.”
Grubbs, the defensive captain, plays in the middle, and Hyrcko and Guess are on the outside. Midfielder Autumn Forte is at the top to complete the diamond formation.
When Grubbs originally was told about the formation switch, she wasn’t sold on the idea, but once she saw how it worked, she felt more confident.
“Honestly, I told (Cameron) it was a bad idea,” Grubbs said, laughing. “I didn’t think it would work, but I told him I’d try it no problem. I was a little nervous about it, but after our scrimmage against Connellsville I felt better. We communicated really well that game. After that, we worked on the certain areas we needed to at practice, and after that, we were pretty good.”
Constant communication between the three backs and Forte has been important when protecting the box in front of goalkeeper Grace Henderson. They work in unison, telling each other whether to push up or drop back.
“We have to make sure everyone stays in balance,” Grubbs said. “It’s not easy, but with communication and with all the hard work we have put in at practice, we’re seeing it pay off in games.”
Belle Vernon has scored at least three goals in every section game and more than six on four occasions. Laurita and Butchki, along with freshman Morgan Einodschofer, have led the charge in filling the net. Laurita said in the preseason she wanted between 30 and 40 goals but has drawn a lot double and sometimes triple teams. She has 18 goals, and has been a good distributor, notching 18 assists.
“That’s a complete player,” Cameron said. “She’s opening things up for Jill and Morgan on the outside. She’s doing her job. She may not hit her goal, but she’s playing like a 40-goal scorer.”
Belle Vernon has only two seniors in the starting lineup, so the future looks bright. The present looks good, too. The Leopards want to win the section title after finishing second last year, and they believe they have the potential to make a run in the postseason.
In 15 previous playoff trips, Belle Vernon has advanced past the second round only once (2012), but Cameron thinks that could change this season.
“We’re hoping this group can do it,” Cameron said. “It’s a young team. We start three freshmen, three sophomores, a couple juniors and two seniors. They are all good players, and I feel we can make a little bit of noise in the playoffs.
“I’m not going out on a limb and saying we’re going to win it all, but we’d like to get deep into the playoffs. It’d be rewarding for this team, and that’s what we’re shooting for.”