By Warren Rappleyea
Seventeen girls who received varsity playing time are back with Red Bank Catholic (RBC) High School’s girls soccer team and look to turn it up a notch after a 14-8-2 campaign.
A year ago, the Caseys entered the season with an outstanding defense and managed to get enough goals to win most matches. RBC finished second to eventual Shore Conference champion Colts Neck High School in the conference’s B North Division. RBC was also the team to forge a tie with the champs. In addition, coach Frank Lawrence’s team reached the semifinals of the NJSIAA South Jersey, Non-Public A tournament, where it fell to Holy Cross Academy.
“We had a pretty young team last year, and we’re still young — only the girls now have a fair amount of experience playing at the varsity level,” Lawrence said. “Even though we had success, after last season the girls were pretty disappointed. They want to do more this time.”
That experience will come in handy, as RBC has just a handful of seniors and they will play leadership roles, like fullback Emily Holtz. Injured late season, Holtz’s absence hampered the Caseys in the postseason. Entering her third year as a starter, Holtz is a steadying presence who rarely makes the wrong play. She leads a talented back line that also includes three sophomores: Danielle Borrino, Anna Cleary and Sarah Lucia.
RBC’s defense should help Anthi Panayides, who takes over the goalkeeping duties following the graduation of four-year starter Jackie Robinson. The tall sophomore got into one game a year ago and spent her offseason working to upgrade her skills.
“Anthi was very raw last year, but I’ve been impressed with how hard she’s worked and how much better she has become,” Lawrence said. “She’s very athletic, is strong on balls in the air and she has good hands.”
Three seniors will be mainstays in the middle. Diana Graziano and Marisa Rafaniello both contributed to the offense as frequent starters. Graziano netted three goals to go with eight assists, while Rafaniello scored a goal and assisted on five others.
Daniella Caputo is a strong defender in the middle who can also join the attack. Lawrence noted that Caputo has good judgment on when to move up and has the speed to get back quickly if needed. Sophomores Julianna Rafaniello, who started every game a year ago and scored five goals with eight assists, and Caroline O’Connor, who posted three assists, round out the midfield corps.
Up front, the Caseys should score more than their total of 60 last year. Junior Jyllissa Harris led the team in scoring with 20 goals and 13 assists. Lawrence is moving senior Sophia Demurjian to forward on a full-time basis after she scored 15 goals and posted 12 assists shuttling between the middle and the front line. Lawrence expects the hard-driving Demurjian to help create more opportunities for Harris.
Versatile Jackie Rieger, who can play anywhere on the field and even took a brief turn in goal last year, is another option at striker. She scored five goals and added seven assists in 2015. Rieger will see plenty of minutes but will move around as the situation dictates. Senior Amber Morin and junior Brianna Urbanski — both of whom have struggled with injuries — will augment the attack. The coach plans to work both players in gradually as the year progresses.
“When I look back at last year, we were very competitive and we just came up a little short against the best,” Lawrence said. “Considering how young we were, the girls held up pretty well for most of the season, but it’s a long season and it can be a grind. We have so many players back, and now they really know what to expect.”
The Caseys will again compete in B North, but the division has been realigned. Rival Colts Neck, a team RBC has battled closely over the past two years — tying one match and losing three others by just one goal — has joined A North along with Neptune High School. Matawan Regional High School and Red Bank Regional High School are now in A Central. However, powerful Wall High School remains, along with Long Branch High School, Monmouth Regional High School and Ocean Township High School. Both Middletown High School North and Middletown High School South are moving in from A North, and Manasquan High School joins from A Central.
“In a way you don’t miss them,” Lawrence said of Colts Neck. “But in another way you do. Those were some of the best games. The kids get up for them and there’s so much excitement — and we really had a shot to win each of the last four games against them. Our division is still going to be tough though.”
RBC has five scrimmages scheduled before it opens at home Sept. 8 against Middletown North.