By GREG MENGELT
In last year’s Class A state finals, Mishawaka Marian was able to smother Providence star goal scorer Casey Marlin.
It resulted in the second shutout of the unbeaten Pioneers all season. Providence needed penalty kicks following a 0-0 draw through two overtimes to clinch the program’s first state championship.
Marian will have to come up with a different game plan in Saturday’s state championship rematch at Michael A. Carroll Track & Soccer Stadium on the campus of IUPUI in Indianapolis.
Providence (14-4-3) doesn’t have a star scorer. Whereas Marlin was one of the state’s leading scorers with 36 goals a year ago, this season nine different Pioneers have scored at least five goals, led by Kasey Wallace’s 17 and Leah Mattingly’s 16.
“Last year, [Marlin] is who we looked for to shoot,” said Providence sophomore Alyssa Jones, who had eight goals and nine assists on the season. “This year, I’m not sure how they’re going to handle us.”
“We’re focusing more this year on passing and really connecting with players, whereas last year, we had two high-target players where we played through balls,” sophomore Sarah Posante said. “This year, we’re working more with the midfield to get passes to the forwards.”
Last year’s state championship team was far from selfish. It was simple: Marlin was the team’s best scorer, so the goal was to get the ball to her.
This year’s team, however, thrives on unselfishness. The team shares the ball and scoring can come from just about anyone, including Mattingly, who is a defender.
“We are confident that literally anyone on the field can score, including the defenders,” Providence coach Dave Smith said. “That’s a good place to be. I think it is a bit of an advantage. Last year, we did lean on Casey. She deserved to be leaned on. She was that good.
“Why would you not go to a player that good? This year, we are by necessity more balanced. I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
“I think there’s a huge advantage there,” said Pioneer sophomore Jordan Reger, who has 11 goals and a team-best 14 assists. “Last year, since they only had to focus mainly on Casey, they didn’t have to worry about focusing on other people. Now they have a lot of people to worry about. It’s a bigger threat.”
The difference has been strategic. A year ago, Providence played a lot of through balls to forwards Marlin and Posante. This year, the plan has been to work the offense through midfielders Erin Duncan and Wallace, who then try to find any open attackers.
“We’re always working to get each other the ball,” Posante said. “We have many players who have scored multiple goals for us. There’s not one player that stands out like last year, a player who had most of our goals. It’s a group effort, really, to get the ball in the goal.”
“It was a little rough at the beginning,” Jones admitted. “We got things figured out and we started connecting more at the end of the season. I think that’s probably why we are where we are right now.”
Another advantage the 2012 Pioneers may have over last year’s champions is experience. Not only have most of the players on this year’s team already won a championship, but they’ve also had to go through pitfalls that last year’s squad never did.
The 2011 team went unbeaten. This year’s has four losses. Last year’s team never trailed. This year’s trailed twice in the Evansville Mater Dei Semi-state championship match against Indianapolis Chatard alone last Saturday.
“I think, if anything, we’ve experienced some bumps along the road,” Smith said. “Last year’s team never lost — and never trailed. This year’s team has seen a little bit of what it’s like to lose by one [goal] and how that feels. What it feels like to be behind and play with a sense of urgency.
“We came from behind twice [last] Saturday night, so we know we can do that. We also know that if we don’t stay focused, it could go the other way. They say the same fire that melts wax hardens steel. We are not going to melt.”
Reger said now that the Pioneers have felt the championship feeling, it wants to do it again on Saturday.
“We have a lot of motivation now that we know what it feels like to have won,” Reger said. “We want to get it again.”
However, the Pioneers also know that Marian, which was so close to winning the title a year ago, also wants its shot to be champions.
“We know that they’ve got more drive this year, because of, obviously, the outcome last year,” Posante said. “We’re trying to focus on putting ourselves in their position.”
“They’re going to want it a lot, especially because they were so close last year,” Jones said. “They’re going to want it 10 times more, especially because they’re playing the same team.”
The Knights are 17-4-2 despite an 0-3-2 start. They have won 17 of their last 18 games, including a pair of 4-1 victories over West Lafayette and Fort Wayne Luers last Saturday’s Argos Semi-state.
Marian is led by a pair of sisters. Sophomore D.J. Veldman has a team-best 19 goals, while senior sister Gabby Veldman has scored 18 goals along with five assists. Smith said it’s midfielder Shannon Hendricks, who has 10 goals and a team-best 18 assists, who makes the Knights go.
“We know they’re a very skilled team and they’re going to want it just as bad as we do on Saturday,” Reger said. “We have to come out hard.”
“They’ve got good balance. I look for a great, all-over-the-field game,” Smith said. “I think both teams are good in all phases — scoring, goalkeeping. I think it’s a really good matchup.”
One player who has gotten very little attention — because she has been so rarely needed — has been junior goalkeeper Autumn Meyer.
The junior has played 1,680 minutes this season and is giving up just 0.81 goals per game. She has 56 saves and allowed only 17 goals and has 13 shutouts.
“She hasn’t tested that much,” Providence coach Dave Smith said. “But when she has been, she’s been tremendous.”
Meyer held Mishawaka Marian to just one goal in a 3-1 shootout victory in last year’s state championship match.
“Last year, we didn’t really know how good she was until we really needed her,” Smith said. “Which was at semi-state and state, and she came up with some enormous saves. She’s done the same thing this year.”