As summer begins to slowly draw to a close and area teams begin to prepare for the scholastic soccer season, a number of interesting possibilities exist for various squads in our area.
The most interesting squad to keep an eye on may be the Altoona Area High girls soccer squad. The girls have undergone five coaching changes in six years, but this year they brought up former junior high coach Jim John, who has a great deal of scholastic coaching experience, club coaching experience and playing experience. More importantly, however, he has made a long term commitment to the girls program and should be there for years to come.
John has brought in former Mountain Lion standout Kyla Hollingshead as his assistant coach. She also has gathered collegiate experience playing at St. Francis. John believes the strong point and saving grace for this year's team will be the defensive unit. They return a number of experienced defensive standouts, including the Swanger sisters, Kelsey and Chloe.
Junior goalie Didi Rizzo may well prove to be the most dependable goalie in the area according to John. He will be putting a relatively young team on the field with only four seniors and a very young midfield group. The girls will however, have a legitimate scoring threat in senior speedster Bri Morris.
They do, however, face an uphill battle as John admitted the teams to beat this year are going to be State College and Hollidaysburg. They play some big out-of-conference games this season, including North Allegheny and Mountain Ridge and Bishop Walsh out of Maryland, whom the team will face to begin the season in the Mountain Ridge Tournament.
The Altoona Area High School boys, under veteran coach Dave Alexander, should be fielding a very strong team this season. The boys have been playing together through the spring travel season, which was organized by manager Jamie Cheers and coached by Jeff Barton.
This team has played together nearly year-round for the past several years. This should be the year that they come of age and are able to challenge for a District 6 title. The road to the District 6 championship, however, as in almost every year, will run through champion State College. They possess depth and experience and will pose a huge obstacle for the Mountain Lions.
The most potent girls team in our area will once again be Hollidaysburg. Coach Dave Soellner will be taking his final crack at a district title with a group of girls that may be the most talented in our area to be assembled on one team.
They are incredibly potent offensively with dynamite scoring machines Taylor Vladic, Mackenzie Walter and Jamie McConnell. Together, Vladic, Walter and McConnell accounted for 34 of the team's 57 goals during the 2009 season. They also will bring a strong defense led by Sarah Cobler and Taylor Wolf.
The Golden Tigers have had incredible regular seasons the past two years, but hit a brick wall with State College. Once again, the Little Lions will be the hurdle to overcome to attain a District 6 title.
On the other hand, the Hollidaysburg boys team, under coach Craig Shale, has lost a tremendous amount of talent due to graduation. The Tigers graduated 13 seniors last season. They are a talented but very young team and undoubtedly will suffer growing pains this year. They don't look to be strong enough or experienced enough to challenge for a district title this year.
The one bright spot that may keep the Hollidaysburg boys squad afloat is senior goalkeeper Jarrod Wassell.
Over at Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School, both the boys and girls teams deal with numbers issues and loss of some very talented seniors. The girls will have a very genuine scoring threat in the form of Morgan Berger. A major stumbling block will be the strength of schedule that both teams must face in the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference. The top four or five teams in the LHAC return some awesome talent and look to be every bit as tough this year as last.
One interesting note is that the Altoona High School soccer program, particularly the girl's squad, has been very kind in providing tennis coach Eric Hovan with some top players who have either won district titles or been major contributors to Altoona tennis District 6 team titles.
This year's District 6 boys champ, Josh Allendar, was an outstanding player on the soccer squad, and he was Altoona's No. 1 for several years for Steven Weiss.
With the prior turnover in girl's coaches, many of the girls transferred from soccer to tennis, including those that led Altoona to a number of team District 6 championships, including Kirstin Messner, Brooke Bovard, Vanessa Schmitt, Allison Schmitt and Alyssa Fazi.
In the end, there may be more equity this year in the 2010 scholastic season than there has been in previous years. Although there certainly are teams with stronger rosters, almost all local teams have a legitimate shot of walking away with a District 6 crown this fall.
The State College versus Altoona matchups on both the boys and girls side are must-watch games for local soccer fans, as well as the Hollidaysburg versus Altoona games, which are always played close regardless of records because of the incredible rivalry that exists between the teams.