Playing D fits Wolves to a T

What had been a major concern at the beginning of the season for the South Kitsap girl’s soccer team has turned into a major pain for opposing teams so far this year.

And before it’s all said and done, this year’s defensive unit of goalie C.J. Balstad, stopper Santerra Holler and defenders Maria Jose, Kaileigh Westermann, Ashley Polen, Sarah Milne, Taylor Prichard, Casey Wernet and Kristin Hunter may rank as one of the best defensive units in the school’s storied soccer past.

“It may be better than any of the teams I’ve coached,” fourth-year coach Eric Bergeson said. “With three goals in 11 games (though Tuesday’s 1-1 tie with Gig Harbor), that may be as high a quality defensive effort as I’ve ever gotten to witness.”

Things may be good now, but it didn’t start off that way.

“We started off rough,” Bergeson said. “Our first week and half of practice was difficult, and it involved some very direct coaching.”

In fact, Bergeson had to sit his defenders down at one point and have a long talk that covered the team’s pride in its defensive play, how his teams are always built from the back up and how so many players before had sacrificed so much to become better players.

“I told them, ‘You’re not it,’ ” Bergeson said. “I told them in no uncertain terms, ‘This isn’t it. This is not South Kitsap defense and you better figure it out soon.’ ”

And as their record reflects, 9-0-3 overall and 7-0-3 in Narrows League Bridge Division play, these Wolves have indeed figured it out. Enough so that SK finds itself in a first-place tie for the division title with just four league games remaining.

“I think I appealed to their sense of pride,” Bergeson said. “I know they have it — they have it in excess. They just weren’t holding themselves to that same standard. They needed to know what that standard was and how far short of it we were falling.”

Bergeson added that he might have gotten things going by giving the girls a little motivation, but they did the rest on their own by working hard on all facets of the game.

Bergeson said a large amount of the credit goes to Holler, the team’s senior co-captain and defensive stopper, who is the backbone of the unit and the team’s vocal leader.

But everyone in the backfield has shown improvement, Bergeson said.

“Our biggest change is that we talk really well,” Holler said. “Last year, we didn’t do that so much.”

Holler said she and Balstad do a lot of communicating and help each other make up for their mistakes. But with so many young players — Hunter, Westermann, Milne and Jose are sophomores while Wernet and Balstad are just juniors — communication has been a big key.

“I think we are pretty much all equal,” Westermann said. “Instead of having a few players that are ranked above or are higher than the others, every one of us plays just as hard as the others.”

Bergeson said Westermann is a totally different player now than she was at the start of the season, while Jose, a physically tough and mentally smart player, embraced his philosophy quickly and responded to some of his more direct coaching.

Balstad, although not as vocal as Bergeson would like her to be, has been a virtual wall in the net, while Polen has worked her way from a member of the junior varsity team into a starting varsity role.

Milne, Prichard, Wernet and Hunter rotate in and out throughout the game, giving the Wolves a solid and steady group.

And while Balstad has made a few solid saves, especially one against Bremerton that kept the score 1-0, the defense in front of her has been good enough to keep her from having to make a game-saving save so far this year.

“I haven’t had to make amazing saves,” Balstad said. “But a save is a save. We haven’t been getting shot on much. We’ve been keeping it on their end most of the time.”

Even though the Wolves have yet to lose a game and Balstad has recorded nine shutouts in 12 games and never allowed more than one goal in a game, everyone agreed that there’s room for improvement. Holler said there are little things the team can work on, including better passing and even better communication.

“I don’t think we’re at our peak,” Bergeson said. “I don’t think we’ve reached our pinnacle, but they have definitely proven themselves and built that confidence.”

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