High on talent yet unassuming in their approach, the six newest players on Stuart’s girls’ soccer team had little idea that they were undoing nearly a decade of futility last season. From 2007-2013, the Raiders compiled a record of 11-71-7, a stretch that included one winless season and a four-win campaign as its high point.
It wasn’t until the close of last spring, after Melanie Albrecht, Chloe Beverina, Anna Heilferty, Mariana Hershner, Emma Klein and Michelle Leung had helped drive the Raiders to an 8-8 mark, that they realized just how good they could be.
“Last year when I made the team, I thought it’d just be fun to play with some of my friends and a way to enjoy soccer from a different perspective outside of club,” said Heilferty, the reigning Virginia Conference 13 player of the year. “But when it came time for the playoffs, there was no doubt that we could be a contender, even though we were so young as a team.”
Fresh off last year’s run to the 5A North region tournament, the group of sophomores is working to take another step forward. With another strong crop of incoming freshmen bolstering their depth, the Raiders are off and running under first-year Coach Jack McAuley, this time compiling a 4-1 mark for their best start in more than a decade.
Aware of their strides from a year ago, McAuley has worked to squeeze an even greater drive out of his team through intense practices and schemes that catered to each player’s strengths rather than tinkering with their established chemistry.
“I wanted them to know I wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel and I was open to also learning from them about what was working and what we can do to take more steps to be competitive,” McAuley said. “And from the start, they’ve been very consistent.”
The Raiders have recorded three shutout victories while shuffling a wealth of versatile talent around the field to slow opponents. One of those players is Beverina, who has complemented her defensive role by netting two goals, including the go-ahead score in Stuart’s 2-1 win against Washington-Lee on Monday.
“I’ve been going in on corner kicks for a long time but it hasn’t really been clicking until now,” Beverina said. “This year, we’ve focused on it in practice and after Michelle flicked the ball off Mariana’s corner, I was just in the right place at the right time and kicked it in.”
Absent from that list is Heilferty. While her lack of goals following last season’s outburst has admittedly been frustrating at times, it’s also encouraging for the sophomore midfielder and her teammates. The added pressure from teams has unveiled the other strengths in Heilferty’s game, such as her passing, savvy and ability to win 50-50 balls.
“Scoring is fun, but our coach has taught us that the overall objective is to possess the ball and create opportunities for our team,” Heilferty said. “Our team has so much depth and I enjoy finding my teammates for assists. The goals are kind of the cherry on top.”
That perspective stems from the continued maturation process of the Raiders, who were again reminded by rival Jefferson of the work still in front of them. After losing a lead and ultimately the game against the Colonials in last year’s Conference 13 semifinals, the Raiders had hoped for revenge in their March 24 matchup, only to again surrender the advantage in a 2-1 loss.
In the three wins that have followed, execution and endurance have been the focus, elements that will be key entering next week, when the Raiders have three games in four nights.
“We learned that we need to come from the start with intensity and being ready to play all 80 minutes at a high level,” Beverina said. “The loss to Jefferson was disappointing, but I think we’re still growing as a team, and with the good talent and senior leadership, I think we can make other teams start to take notice as the season goes on.”