With a quick glance at the standings, a casual South Jersey soccer fan may see yet another impressive regular-season record for the Eastern High School girls soccer team this year and just assume that the expected happened once again.
But a 15-1-1 regular-season record isn’t an accurate depiction of how difficult it was for the Vikings — a consistently highly ranked state and national level team in recent years — to once again come out on top as Olympic Conference champions for the eighth time in nine years.
“This is honestly one of the most rewarding seasons I’ve had here, just based on what we’ve gotten out of the girls this year,” coach Jamie McGroarty said.
Following a perfect 15-0 season in which Eastern defeated Washington Township to capture yet another sectional title last year, the Vikings lost two of their three leading scorers in graduate Riley Tiernan and Sydney Ritter, who elected not to play this year for Eastern.
On top of that, four ACL injuries in the spring before the current season removed three of the team’s senior captains from the lineup — Klio Kokolis, Emily Eustace and Devyn Shapiro — as well as placing starting center-midfielder Hayley Mardsen on the bench.
“It was tough losing Riley and Sydney as it was, which were two huge losses offensively,” McGroarty said. “But we certainly didn’t expect to also lose what was quite honestly our best player at each level of the field to injuries before the season even started.
“You go into the season with expectations and looking at it on paper, we were a legitimate top team to potentially win a state championship,” he added. “But then all of a sudden, the rug gets pulled out from under both us as a team but them as individuals as well.”
For that reason, this year has been a season of more firsts than usual for many girls, from notching their first varsity goal or assist to first varsity action at all.
“We have a lot of girls this year that probably would’ve been on JV this year, but instead they’re playing not just roles, but key roles, at the varsity level instead,” McGroarty said. “Our games were certainly a lot tighter this year than had been over the last 10 years or so, but they deserve all the credit for finding ways to get it done and constantly adapting.”
With Tiernan at Rutgers and Ritter not on the roster, Army commit Cami Silvestro was the top returning leading scorer for the Vikings. At the conclusion of the regular season, she leads the team in both goals, with 12, and assists, with eight, as the main facilitator on offense.
Thinking back to before the season started, the senior can remember the uncomfortable feeling of entering the year with such a drastically different starting lineup than what she and the rest of the team anticipated.
“My approach really changed after all those devastating ACL tears … I wasn’t the most optimistic about this season at first, if I’m being honest,” Silvestro said. “But by the time we got to our first game, I was really impressed by how much heart and work these girls made up for despite losing as many key players as we did.”
Building team chemistry and having a sense of what it was like to play with one another — despite an almost entirely new starting lineup — was of course difficult at first. Quite often, it’s something that has to come naturally and can’t really be coached, but Silvestro said she felt the connection click relatively early in the year, leading to the strong play the Vikings displayed throughout the regular season.
“We play with a certain amount of grit and heart, and that’s something that you can’t really teach,” Silvestro said. “But the captains, those that could play and those that couldn’t, made it a point to get across how hard we play each and every game … We play with the intention that every game could be your last, so always play your best.”
Following a 2020 season in which she allowed just three goals all season, senior goalie Ava Clark said her initial goal this year was to stay at that same number, if not better. Unfortunately the big change in names on the pitch made such a goal elusive in the end, but it did bring a new challenge and a larger role for Clark to fill as the season progressed.
“I like to accept the challenge and help guide those in front of me kind of find their way,” she said. “We’ve all played different forms of soccer and learned different ways to play the game, so meshing together to find one cohesive line in the back was difficult at first, but as the season went on we’ve figured out how to play together.”
But now that the team has at the very least defended its Olympic Conference title, Clark said she and her teammates can look back at a 2021 season in which the Vikings were able to overcome quite the challenge.
“I think coming into the season back in June and July, I don’t think any of us would’ve expected a 15-1-1 season a few months later,” Clark said. “This is a huge accomplishment for us. There were a lot of inexperienced players at the varsity level who really had to step up to get us to where we are now.”