Oakland Catholic girls soccer develops championship mindset

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Tuesday, October 9, 2018 | 1:45 PM


The Oakland Catholic girls soccer team has been at both ends of the WPIAL postseason spectrum.

Two years ago, the upstart Eagles surprised themselves by earning a share of the section crown with South Park and stepped into the Class AAA playoff bracket as a No. 3 seed. Oakland Catholic was one and done.

Last season, the Eagles sort of backed their way into the postseason as a fourth-place finisher in the section, were given the No. 16 seed and placed with the unenviable task of facing top seed, and eventual champion, Moon. Oakland Catholic was one and done.

After last year’s loss, it all clicked for third-year coach Jim Earle. The one thing his team was missing couldn’t be found anywhere near the soccer pitch. It can only be found between the ears. Earle had to develop a mindset.

“It takes that championship mindset and that’s what it takes at this point in the season,” said Earle, who has led the Eagles to the postseason in each of his first three seasons as coach. “We took time out of practice to talk about adversity, challenges and how we respond to those challenges. You see it all the time in sports with teams that have tremendous talent but don’t win.”

Earle’s Eagles have bought into the “championship mindset” and No. 2-ranked Oakland Catholic (12-1, 10-0) is back near the top of the WPIAL.

And unlike last year where the Eagles lost seven out of their last nine regular season games, the Eagles are flying high going into the final week of the regular season. Oakland Catholic is riding a 12-game winning streak it hopes to carry through the postseason and on a path that leads back to the Eagles’ home field: Highmark Stadium.

“It’s funny. It’s a group that really doesn’t have much swagger,” Earle said. “I don’t worry too much about their heads getting big. We talk about taking one game at a time and try to be better every day. That’s really been our focus. We haven’t focused on section title or anything like that.”

Oakland Catholic was humbled right out of the gate this season. First up on the schedule was one of the top teams in Class 4A, Seneca Valley (12-1, 9-1). Oakland Catholic made the late August mid-day trip up Interstate 79, sat for more than an hour on a hot bus in rush hour traffic and arrived at the Seneca Valley campus 40-minutes late for the match. Earle got the result that one might think after all of that, a 4-0 loss to the Raiders.

But it was during that loss when Earle first realized his team had potential not be just good, but great.

“I was so encouraged by that game,” Earle said. “I was so encouraged by the way we played, by possessing the ball in the middle on the field. That’s what you want out of one of those games, and we learned that we needed to work on the box.”

The Seneca Valley match was the last time the Eagles lost. Since then, Oakland Catholic has outscored opponents 47-9. The “championship mindset” has set in as the Eagles have soared through their competition with pinpoint focus on their opponents.

“I haven’t heard any talk about winning the section, getting to the playoffs or nothing,” Earle said. “And that’s what I want. I want all of our attention, and our focus on our next opponent. There’s some tough teams in our section, and you need to be ready every night in our section.”

The Eagles are led by sophomore forward Hannah Henn’s 20 goals and 12 assists. However, if there’s one thing opponents need to keep in mind when playing Oakland Catholic, if they focus too much on Henn, they’re gonna get burned by someone else. The Eagles are loaded with scoring talent.

“Hannah has really come alive,” Earle said. “I’d say that it’s very well balanced. We got a really strong midfield and some seasoned players in there.”

By seasoned players, Earle means players who were there , and still feel the sting, from the Eagles first-round exits the last two years. Junior midfielder Caitlyn Berl has tallied nine goals and seven assists, junior forward Tori Calhoun has found the 10 times and senior midfielder Anna Sproule has notched six goals and five assists to give the Eagles a multitude of scoring threats.

“The other big difference between this year and last year was that we had a lot of girls come into preseason camp in better condition than they did last year,” Earle said.

One thing that can’t be ignored is the play on the defensive end. In addition to senior Caroline Richard, the Eagles start three juniors in Rylee Stager, Margaret Terry and Rachel Burkholder in front of standout junior goalkeeper Maggie Storti. Storti and the Eagles defense have delivered six clean sheets.

Oakland Catholic is experienced, battle tested, and most of all, humbled heading into the postseason knowing that anything can happen once the playoffs begin.

“We have enough girls that were on that team two years ago that we came in as the higher-seeded team and got upset,” Earle said. “You can’t look ahead. One game at a time.”

William Whalen is a freelance writer.

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