Rising to the challenge

Setting a goal to become president of the United States is an admirable but pretty unrealistic goal. Aiming for a trip to the soccer playoffs, however, is a far more reasonable ambition.

But for members of the Marysville-Pilchuck High School girls soccer program, the latter objective has seemingly been as unattainable as getting to be Commander -in-Chief. In their nearly 30-year history, the Tomahawks have never advanced to the playoffs — not districts, not state, nada.

But thanks to an energized, confident 2007 squad led by eight experienced seniors, M-P’s longtime postseason roadblock is in danger of falling almost as fast as Sen. John McCain’s poll numbers.

It’s not that M-P has been totally out of contention. In 2005 it won eight games and missed the Class 4A district playoffs by one spot. But the current crop of Tomahawks looks primed to finally break through.

“Everybody actually believes in it this year,” said senior Skyler Peterson, M-P’s third-year starting goalkeeper.

Second-year M-P head coach Geoff Kittle challenged his team to set lofty goals and players are determined to achieve them, said Peterson, also a standout softball player who in July verbally committed to play softball for Texas Tech University.

After losing its first two games of the season, M-P has won four straight times and is currently in third place in the Western Conference North Division. Its losses were both by a single goal and came against a pair of highly touted foes: 1-0 against unbeaten Snohomish (6-0) and 2-1 versus Everett (5-1), the preseason division favorites.

M-P’s four victories equal its entire total from last year, and the Tomahawks have 10 division contests remaining, starting tonight when they play host to 2-4 Arlington.

Picked to finish seventh in the division in The Herald’s preseason coaches’ poll, M-P has shown it can hang with top-notch Wesco opponents.

“It feels really good ’cause we’ve had the talent for like three or four years. It’s just (that now) we’re more of a team,” senior midfielder Kassandra Riozzi said.

Riozzi, who plans to sign with Seattle University for soccer, and Peterson said M-P’s rigorous offseason training program and the team’s victory at a summer tournament in Tumwater set the table for what’s been an exciting season. The

Tomahawks have already defeated four teams (Stanwood, Lake Stevens, Monroe and Cascade) that last fall finished ahead of them in the division standings.

“It’s exciting,” said Riozzi, “because if we keep playing like this I think we can (make the playoffs).”

The top four 4A teams in the Wesco North advance to the District 1 tournament.

Kittle, M-P’s head coach, played prep soccer at Tumwater High and played two years at Pierce College, near Tacoma. An M-P assistant for four years before taking over the program in 2006, Kittle started something called the Inner Circle, a unity-building tool that allows every girl on the team to share her thoughts before practices and games. It’s helped them develop strong bonds that have boosted their collective confidence.

“Our girls believe that if they go out and play hard every night, they can beat any team,” said Kittle.

The coach credited players like Riozzi (two goals, three assists) and Peterson (two shutouts), as well as forwards Melissa Lauer (two goals) and Hannah Wood (one goal, one assist) with helping ignite M-P’s strong start. Six girls have at least one goal for the balanced Tomahawks.

“We had scoring from five different players (through five games),” Kittle said. “All of the girls on the team just know their roles.”

By late next month, their role might be to represent the program in its first playoff appearance — a suddenly probable achievement that will have taken nearly three decades to accomplish.

Said Peterson, “This year there’s a lot more heart in it. Everybody wants it.”

“Our girls would be really proud” if they qualify for the postseason, Kittle said. “It’s still early, but it is nice that the girls are beating teams that they haven’t beaten in a long time.”

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