Confidence growing for Aquinas Academy girls soccer

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Saturday, September 17, 2022 | 11:01 AM


The smallest school in WPIAL girls soccer is starting to think big.

“This year, I’d really like to see us make it to the second round of playoffs,” Aquinas Academy senior midfielder Isabella Hite said, “and, hopefully, go all the way.”

The Crusaders, in only their third season as a program, are working to return to the WPIAL playoffs under new coach Tom Dongilli after last year’s breakthrough 11-6 season.

They welcomed Dongilli in the offseason after Dale Giovengo departed for Sewickley Academy following two seasons at the Hampton private school.

Dongilli arrived with modest expectations for Aquinas, which has only 51 girls in grades 9-11, making it the smallest girls soccer program among 98 teams in the WPIAL.

Prior to 2020, Aquinas girls played soccer for now-closed Vincentian Academy as part of a co-op agreement.

“At first, I thought I would come in and really have a team that was mediocre,” said Dongilli, a former girls soccer coach at Baldwin and OLSH. “… But they are a confident group that is learning the system and believing in it and believing in each other.”

Aquinas opened the season with a 2-0 victory over Mohawk, avenging a 5-0 loss last year. They sandwiched 3-2 losses to Ambridge and Section 4-A foe Winchester Thurston with a 3-1 victory over Central Valley behind junior striker Abigail Stalder’s hat trick.

“The energy this year has been significantly better than last year,” Hite said. “I think the team is really excited and sees all the potential we have this season.”

Hite, an all-section pick last season, is joined in the attacking midfield by sophomore Ari Buchanan and freshman Rebecca Guillen.

Dongilli has installed a 4-2-3-1 formation with four defenders, two defensive midfielders, three attacking midfielders and a striker.

“I think the formation is working 100 times better than last year,” Hite said. “This year we have a nice structure and system. It’s going to be really great for our team.”

The starting defensive midfielders are sophomore Ellie Bou Samra and freshman Elliot Keverline, and the defenders are seniors Palma Serrao and Emily Fisher and juniors Seraphina Myron and Sara Sokolski.

Freshman goalie Maria Ravotti is starting in net and has already flashed signs of her ability.

“She is absolutely going to go (Division I) somewhere,” Dongilli said. “That kid is amazing. In 25 years of coaching, I’ve never had a (freshman) goalie that good.”

The top player off the bench is sophomore defender Ashlin Knox. Other contributors include seniors Sara White and Mary Bou Samra.

Aquinas Academy (2-3 overall, 0-2 in section as of Sept. 12) is scheduled to open the second half of section play against Winchester Thurston on Sept. 28.

Aquinas girls soccer continues to grow. The Crusaders had only 12 players on the roster in their first season in the WPIAL, going 5-9-1 in 2020. This year they have 15 players, but Dongilli admitted filling the roster is “a constant challenge.”

To complicate matters, some girls on the soccer team are playing two fall sports.

Hite, who plays four sports at Aquinas Academy, is an All-WPIAL field hockey player who is being recruited by Belmont Abbey (N.C.). Two other soccer players also play field hockey in the fall.

“It gets a bit tricky being such a small school, for sure,” Dongilli said.

Obstacles aside, Dongilli is glad to be back on the field. After his wife of 29 years, Susan, died at age 49 in 2020, Dongilli, a father of three, stepped away from soccer for two years to care for his family. As his youngest child reached college age, the 54-year-old Dongilli felt the time was right to return to the sport he loves.

“I wanted to get back into the game again,” he said. “As soon as I met everyone at Aquinas, I realized that’s where I needed to be.”

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