The St. James soccer team has hit a bit of a rough patch. After starting the season 2-2, the Lady Tigers have dropped six straight games dating back to a 4-1 loss to St. Clair. Five of those six games came against Four Rivers Conference rivals, while three of those teams are also in St. James' District. Their last game came against Owensville on Thursday, where they lost 5-1 to their conference and District foe.
After St. James' 4-1 to St. Clair, they traveled to face the girls soccer powerhouse of the FRC, Union. The Lady Wildcats scored four goals in the opening half, before winning by mercy rule 10-0. The loss to Union started a string of road games in the conference that included match-ups with Sullivan and Pacific.
Sullivan was able to sneak a couple of shots past Ivy Fowler in goal and win 3-0, before Pacific won 9-1 with St. James' lone goal scored by Shelby Quick. Unfortunately, that was Quick's last game with the team and St. James had to make some major adjustments. That led to a 7-2 loss to Laquey the next day on Tuesday, April 16. The two Lady Tiger goals came from Aly Bullock off an assist from Mikaela Donnelly, before Donnelly scored off an assist from Caily Sanders. Both goals came in the first half in the loss.
Sanders is a new addition to the top of the field for St. James, as she played defense to start the season. But with their recent struggles and the loss of Quick, the Lady Tigers had to make some changes. Sanders came up to play forward, pushing Donnelly out to the wing. St. James has been experimenting with different players on the other wing, including Shelby Marcee. The pairing of Sanders and Donnelly is starting to pay off, as they made a ton of scoring opportunities against Owensville on Thursday. Donnelly was able to break through for a goal in the second half on an assist in the second half, but the two nearly added several goals on shots that just missed high or wide. While they lost the game 5-1, assistant coach Beau Moreland thinks the pairing of Sanders and Donnelly could help give St. James the offensive spark they need.
"Caily Sanders has come out of nowhere and has been absolutely phenomenal. That girl has so much potential," said coach Moreland. "With her in Mikaela up there, that combination is deadly, they just haven't quite figured it out yet. They had so many give and go through balls to each other against Owensville and when they pulled the trigger it wasn't on target. When they begin to hit that target, we're going to start seeing some high scoring games in the future."
St. James has had some high scoring opponents recently that have challenged their young defense. It's put a lot of pressure on Fowler in goal, who has been playing better than her goal numbers show. She made some excellent saves in the loss to Owensville on Thursday and just had some unfortunate shots against her. The first goal went just over her outstretched arms and snuck under the crossbar. On the second goal, she came out to play a ball, making the initial save, but couldn't quite corral the ball, which left the door open for a goal. As her defense learns their positions and gives her a little more help, their goal numbers should go down.
"(Fowler) is a great goalie," said coach Moreland. "It's hard for her because they're such a young defense in front of her that she feels like she has a lot of weight on her shoulders."
Another thing that should help is shifting Alyssa Rinehart back to a more defensive position in the midfield. She has solid field vision and can work with her sister Ashlyn in the middle of the field to get the ball out of the defensive zone more efficiently, which should take some pressure off of the young Lady Tiger defense going forward.
"Alyssa does and outstanding job with Ash in the middle of the field. With them being sisters, they don't even really have to communicate, they know exactly what the other is doing, which makes it easier for us to transition from that defensive to offensive push," said Moreland. "I'm hoping that keeps getting better."
While St. James was hoping to avoid a tough stretch like this, it's not entirely out of left field. They had to replace the best scorer the Lady Tigers have seen, while also trying to bring a lot of new players into the fold. Coach Moreland hopes that this stretch has been a good learning experience for the newer players.
"There was no hiding that we were going to be a whole different team this year. We planned on going out and being competitive," said the St. James assistant. "It hasn't been a surprise, but I like what we've seen, but at the end of the day we knew we had an uphill challenge and that's been the motto for this season. Regular season games matter, but at the end of the day Districts is what counts. If you wanna make it to that playoff tournament, you've got to win at Districts and if it takes us all season long to get dialed it, then it takes us all season long. If we're continuously improving and making small adjustments instead of big adjustments then we're headed in the right direction."
Districts shouldn't come with any surprises either, as St. James played all three of the other teams in their District in the last week and a half. St. Clair, Owensville and Sullivan are all potential matchups in Districts that they've already faced and St. James still has regular season rematches against St. Clair and Owensville coming up.
"With teams like Owensville and Sullivan and St. Clair, they're teams that are beatable for us and we've just got to make sure that we make those adjustments," said coach Moreland of the benefits of facing all of their District teams during the regular season. "Moving forward, the girls can have that confidence, because each of those games we had a lot of good things happen then at the end of the game things didn't go our way."
Next up for the Lady Tigers is a trip to Marshfield on Monday, April 22, before hosting Crocker for a rematch on Tuesday.