By Rob Centorani Staff Writer
The Daily Star
---- — ONEONTA – Jerry Mackey had to make some adjustments this season.
And not just with the Oneonta High girls soccer team but with his squad’s schedule.
With a revamped and youthful defense, Mackey said the tournament his team played in Syracuse in mid-October against Section Three powers Liverpool and Cicero-North Syracuse was originally scheduled about a month earlier.
“I said to those teams, we’re willing to play you but not the third week of September,” Oneonta’s 10th-year coach said Wednesday in Drago Gymnasium just after standout midfielder Mariah Ruff officially signed a letter of intent to play Division I basketball at St. Bonaventure on a full scholarship. “It will be no contest.”
The Yellowjackets (18-2-1), who’ll play Section Five’s Hornell in a Class B state semifinal at 5 p.m. Saturday at Cortland High, graduated defensive stalwarts Shelby Cleaveland, Jennifer Jelic and Amy Hait, along with goalie Emmalee Sloman off of last season’s team that advanced to the Class B state final.
After some tinkering, Mackey turned to juniors Kendall Gillette, Alicia Arcidiacono to play the wing positions on defense. Senior Meg Burns took over at sweeper and junior Maddie Grau became the goalie.
With junior Madison Miller back following an right ankle injury that sidelined her for a few weeks in October, suddenly the Yellowjackets’ defense is no longer an issue.
In fact, since a 3-2 victory over Vestal in a Southern Tier Athletic Conference semifinal, OHS hasn’t allowed a goal.
It beat Elmira, 1-0, to win its third straight STAC title and followed it with shutout wins over Waverly (2-0), Susquehanna Valley (3-0) and Seton Catholic Central (2-0) en route to a third straight Section Four Class B title.
Then came a 1-0 victory over Bronxville in a state first-round game and a 2-0 win against Spackenkill this past Saturday that sent the Yellowjackets into the state final four for the second straight year.
“I was really scared at first, but they made me feel very comfortable as a new person,” said Arcidiacono, a forward on the junior varsity team last season. “I was new to defense, so I was really scared coming in and playing a new position, but Meg and Madison really helped me adjust.”
Playing positions where communication is vital, it took some time for Oneonta’s newcomers to familiarize themselves with each other.
“Right in the beginning of the STAC playoffs, when we started playing harder opponents and we were more challenged, we kind of figured out what worked and what didn’t,” said sweeper Burns, whose ability to stop opponent’s runs before they get started and her booming leg that sends balls well out of harm’s way has keyed the Yellowjackets’ defensive success.
Gillette added that even if a defender makes a mistake, teammates are there to make sure it doesn’t turn into a goal-allowing miscue.
“Meg is always there,” she said. “I feel she’s always reading the play very well, so if Archie or I make a mistake and a girl goes by, Meg is always there or if my girl gets by, Archie drops back and picks her up, or Madison is there to pick her up. We’re all there to help each other.”
Miller, a Second Team all-state stopper last season, said she’s been impressed with how quickly the newcomers have jelled.
“From the beginning, we started off playing off of each other well, but as Meg said was saying, when it got harder, that’s when we got challenged and these girls are doing amazing. We’re in sync. We mesh really well. It’s all communication and we have a good system.”
The times opponents have managed to get shots off, Grau has been positioned perfectly to make the save. Whether it’s staying home or coming off of her line, she’s made the saves.
“We’ve come a long way,” Grau said. “In the beginning of the year, there were some rocky starts and some mishandled balls, but I’m very confident. After playing in Syracuse (a 3-0 loss to Liverpool that was followed by a 2-0 loss to C-NS) and having all those injuries, we really came together for those STAC games. We started to realize we can play without Madison and (Brieanna Baker), but with them, we’re even better.”
Now the Yellowjackets are two wins away this weekend from that elusive first state championship in girls soccer.
“I’m proud of how it’s come together,” Mackey said. “A lot of these girls don’t play these positions in travel soccer, so it’s not like they’ve building toward this for years. It’s worked and I’m impressed how quickly it’s come together.”
Ruff, who’s also played a lot on the defensive end this season, added: “Our defense has been playing well all year. We’ve been playing well for the last two weeks and we just have to keep doing what we do best.”
Rob Centorani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.