To start with, the WBAL Foothill Division boasts the defending Central Coast Section Division III champion in Sacred Heart Prep. The Gators put together the finest season in program history in '09, going 10-0-2 to win their first league title and then sweeping through the playoffs for the section crown.
Head coach Jake Moffat has another strong team this season, but the WBAL will be tough to predict once again.
"I am not sure what to expect from the WBAL this year," Moffat said. "We, along with Menlo and Priory, need to replace some key players. I think the league will come down to who has done the best job of filling those holes. The game next Thursday (Jan. 14) with Priory will tell a lot. It should be a very competitive match."
Sacred Heart Prep went 15-3-5 a year ago, losing seven seniors off that team. The Gators are off to a 6-3-1 start and appear to be headed in the right direction after winning the consolation championship of the Excalibur Invitational in Orange County last week. Sacred Heart dropped its tourney opener, but won four straight — including two matches on the final day.
As the defending champ, the Gators have to be considered the league favorite until someone else grabs the honor. SHP has only four seniors — Katie Denniston and starters Lizzy Weisman, Caroline Moe and Christie Byrne — and a strong 10-player junior class led by starters Abby Dahlkemper, Nicole Quilliam, Sophia Abuel-Saud and Lauren Espeseth.
"Excalibur did really help to bring things together, particularly in the defense," Moffat said. "We are starting a sophomore keeper, Chris Sours, and a sophomore sweeper, Stephanie Terpening. After a rough start, giving up three goals in the first half to a tough Los Alamitos team, the defense only yielded one goal in the run of play over the next 4 1/2 games.
"Stephanie did a great job of anchoring the defense. Chris saved three PK's in a shootout against Walnut. We won the consolation bracket, which was a much better result for us than last year when we were eliminated on the second day with a record of 1-2."
Weisman and Dahlkemper were the standouts offensively. Weisman scored three goals with one assist and was named to the all-tournament team — one that was filled with NCAA Division I-bound players. Dahlkemper, who will miss part of the season when she travels to Costa Rica with the U.S. National 17-under team for the World Cup tryouts, had two goals and three assists in last week's tourney while Terpening helped anchor a defense against some strong Southern California teams.
"We are getting fit and starting to play together as a team," Moffat said. "Geena Grauman (a junior) has been injured (knee), which has created a big hole for us. But, other girls have really stepped up. Lizzy and Abby have really connected nicely, which creates a dangerous attack for us."
The one team that gave SHP the most trouble in league play last season was Menlo, which battled the Gators to a pair of ties while finishing the WBAL season 8-2-2. The Knights will be out to improve upon those deadlocks this season while hoping to wrest the league title away. More important, Menlo won't forget that its season-ending loss in the '09 CCS quarterfinals was to SHP.
Menlo is already off to its best start (6-0-1) in years under veteran coach Donoson FitzGerald, in his 21st year and still searching for his first CCS title. The Knights had to settle for a 1-1 deadlock with Paly on Tuesday.
"Menlo's success (this season) has been the result of the girls playing well as a team," he said. "It has been a real team effort. We have had so many players scoring goals, particularly senior Nicole Fasola, senior Katie Baum and sophomore Sophie Sheeline."
Menlo's midfield, meanwhile, has controlled play and created good scoring opportunities. Leading the way has been junior Kelly Cavan, sophomore Shannon Lacy and freshman Maya Norman. The defense has limited the opponents to three goals in six games with freshman keeper Julia Dressel, senior Elitah Petty, senior Mila Sheeline, sophomore Frannie McCarthy and sophomore Elle Laub leading the way.
"We have so many good players," FitzGerald said, "but, more importantly, they play very well as a team."
Priory is the third big player in the WBAL this season. The Panthers finished second last year (10-2), losing only to SHP while beating Menlo twice. They advanced to the CCS playoffs before losing in the quarterfinals to top-seeded Santa Cruz to finish the year 15-5-1.
The Panthers did lose some key players to graduation, but appeared to as strong or stronger until a number of injuries slowed this season's progress. The biggest loss was freshman Mariana Galvan, a member of the U.S. National U-15 team. She tore an ACL during a national team camp in Florida in early December and is lost for the season.
The Panthers also lost last season's leading scorer, senior Adriana Cortes, to a sprained ankle last month. She is expected to be back this month, along with junior Alex Schnabel, who was sidelined by an MCL injury. Sophomore Molly Simpson suffered a deep cut to her forhead in Monday's 1-0 nonleague victory over Santa Cruz and junior Lauren Barkmann has a possible shin fracture (or severe shin splints).
Once those two return and everyone is healthy, Priory could be a force. Junior Massiel Castellanos is back after leading the team in scoring her freshman year. She missed much of last season with a leg injury. She's scored the winning goal against Santa Cruz on a penalty kick. Also back is senior Melissa Perna, senior Lauren Allen plus sophomores Darrah Shields, Eugenia Jernick and Alyson Perna. There's also a third Perna, sophomore Angela, to make things confusing for head coach Armando del Rio.
Freshman Sarah Zuckerman is making an impact on defense while freshman keeper Elizabeth Oliphant is coming into her own and improving.
"All in all," del Rio said, "my focus is on getting the team as healthy as we can get for next week, and we will just have to manager any circumstances/injuries, as our goal is to get to CCS."
If there is a potential spoiler in the WBAL (Foothill Division), it could be Castilleja, which originally was to be dropped into the Skyline Division (to be replaced by Crystal Springs). The Gators' returning talent, however, allowed the decision to be reversed and stay in the Foothill with all the heavyweights.
The Gators are 3-2, losing nonleague matches to Menlo and Sacred Heart Prep by close scores. Those teams will meet later this month when it counts. Castilleja is still young, featuring only four seniors that include starters Emily Colvin, Amy Toig and keeper Allie May. Caitlin Colvin is the leading scorer with seven goals while fellow sophomores Emily Mosbacher and Martha Harding also have contributed to the offense with juniors Rachel Brownell and Charlotte Geaghan-breiner.
In the SCVAL De Anza Division, Palo Alto (3-2-1) returns with another strong team. The Vikings have their sights set again on reaching the CCS Division I championship game, but this time with a victory. Paly lost to Monta Vista in the title match in '09 and opened its league season Thursday against the same team.
Palo Alto has nine returning starters and a strong group of newcomers. Leading the way is senior forward Kelly Jenks, the league's top junior last year. She'll play at Santa Clara University next fall. Midfielder/forward Erika Hoglund is committed to play for Princeton while junior keeper Alex Kershner is back to start her third year.
Also back are seniors Maeve Stewart, Kaitlyn Patterson, Emily Yeates, Sophie Cain and Claire Skrabutenas plus a very deep lineup that includes sophomore Marina Foley, junior Gracie Cain and junior Hannah Ohlson.
Gunn (0-1, 2-3-1), which visits Paly on Tuesday at 3:30 p.m., already lost two players for the year (one with a torn ACL) and has two other injured players — leaving new coach Damian Cohen with just 13 players. Cohen had a similar situation when he coached at Priory, a young team with not enough bodies.
"The league is obviously quite challenging," he said.
Cohen likes his team, but knows the Titans need to prove themselves after winning the El Camino Division crown last season.
"That is what we aim to show this year, that we do belong in this upper division," he said.
Helping Gunn get there will be keeper Brooke Binkley and forward Emily Hardison, the team's only seniors. The juniors feature Anna von Clemm, Melissa Sun, Diana Wise and Holly McKenna (currently injured) while the sophomores feature Alyssa Perreault, Liza Marinaro and Laura Heyward, among others.
In the PAL Bay Division, Menlo-Atherton (1-0, 5-1-1) is off to a good start under coach Paul Snow. The Bears romped to a 6-2 victory over host Sequoia on Tuesday as senior Mallory Stevens scored twice while junior Gillian Collom, senior Vanessa Renkel, sophomore Jennifer Kirst and sophomore Lindsay Keare also scored.
Senior Brigid McCurdy and freshman Caitlyn Lanigan are sharing time at keeper while junior midfielder Victoria Fernandez and sophomores Meryssa Thompson and Naomie Pacalin have been backed up by defenders like senior Elena Kolarov, junior Tess Cain and sophomore Lauren Dunn.