The following article by Cody Elliott was printed in the April 29, 2019 Daily News-Record.
HARRISONBURG — Each time a ball sails by an opposing goalkeeper and into the back of the net, Abby Stapleton doesn’t celebrate.
Instead, she said she looks for the teammate that assisted her on the goal — she’s tallied a city/county high 21 of them already this season — and makes it a joint celebration.
“We care about each other enough that we want each other to succeed,” Stapleton said. “We’re not so self-centered that we want all the goals. We’re willing to share the ball and get everyone goals.”
That type of selflessness for the Eastern Mennonite girls soccer team this season has not only made the Flames one of the most potent offenses in the Blue Ridge Conference, but has helped the team form a feeling of solidarity.
The Eastern Mennonite program has built a reputation as one of the best in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association over the years and specifically in the five seasons since Andrew Gascho became coach.
“Gascho has really stressed that the most important things for this team are that we have a faith-based community and, win or lose, we are playing for each other and playing for God,” Stapleton said. “ You’re doing it with each other and for each other. I think it takes the pressure off and allows us to push ourselves and be our best because we know we’re not going to get angry at each other.”
Gascho was originally an assistant under Jason Capps as the Flames won the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division II state championship in 2013 — the first in school history — and finished as runner-ups in 2014.
In his first season as head coach in 2015, EMHS defeated Trinity School at Meadow View to win the school’s second state title, but finished as runner-up a year later with a 1-0 loss to Highland.
Players such as Stapleton and fellow junior Ava Galgano were on that runner-up team as eighth graders and Gascho said the experience for that group is paying off now.
“The experience all the way around is really good.” Gascho said. “The key for this year is just finding the right rhythm, whether it’s starting games or bringing people off the bench to change the energy level. Finding that rhythm is something that hasn’t quite clicked perfect. That’s exciting because we’ve gotten this far and don’t quite feel like we’ve played our best yet.”
The Flames are 9-2 this year and 4-2 in the BRC after a 4-2 win over Chatham Hall on Friday, but it was a loss to Virginia Episcopal School on April 11 that the team said opened its eyes.
Entering that game, Eastern Mennonite had won four in a row, but the Flames’ normally-potent offensive attack was stalled as they fell 2-0 in Harrisonburg.
“That was kind of a game-changer,” senior Camryn Landes said. “We had in our minds that it was going to be an easy road to states. We finally got some cold water in our faces with that. Now, our whole mindset is just to win and dominate every game.”
For the most part, Eastern Mennonite has done just that, scoring four or more goals in seven of its nine wins and outscoring opponents 42-11 for the season.
Gascho said one of the biggest keys to the Flames’ offensive explosion is the different types of ways they can score, whether it be by bearing down on the edges to get around the corner or sneaking in a pass and using their speed.
“When you can score in such a variety of ways, that makes it really hard to defend,” Gascho said. “We spread the scoring around. Statistically, it’s weighted one way, but when teams key on [Stapleton], we love that. It opens everyone else up. … We can really kind of morph and change and score in a variety of ways.”
As a VISAA school, Eastern Mennonite has the unique advantage of occasionally putting eighth graders on the varsity team if they’re ready, such as Stapleton and Galgano in 2016.
This year, the Flames have six freshmen, eight sophomores, eight juniors and two seniors, but Stapleton said you couldn’t tell the difference between any of them.
“We interact the exact same way as we would with someone in our own grade,” Stapleton said. “I have a ton of friends that are underclassmen and that relationship that we’ve formed here carries off the field. When we’re on the field, we don’t get irritated with each other like other teams do. We know each other on a very deep, personal level. I really think that helps us.”
The relationships between the players is evident not only through their camaraderie at practices and before games, but also when they step on the field and it’s time to produce.
“We work together as a team and we pick up for one another, play hard for one another,” goalkeeper Caroline Hayes said. “You can’t just go off and say, ‘This is going to be my game’ It’s generally, ‘I’m going to do my best for you.’”
Five different players have scored for EMHS this season —Stapleton, Galgano, Halie Mast, Joelle Blosser and Sidney Rhodes — and eight have at least one assist.
“We’re grateful to have so many fast and technical players,” Galgano said. “A lot of teams will try to focus on one person, but we don’t really just have one person. If you focus on them, the game is over because you can’t focus on an entire team. That’s one of our biggest strengths. We can play through anybody and it’s going to go very well.”
Gascho said the offense thrives off the defensive effort Eastern Mennonite puts forth each game and made sure to note the dominating performances wouldn’t be possible without that side of the field stepping up immensely.
That was especially evident early in the year with the Flames posting four straight shutouts to start the season, outscoring 14-0 in the process.
“The communication has helped a lot on the field,” Landes said. “We’re talking a lot. … I feel like once we get into the groove, we’re pretty good at figuring out the strategies of the other team. Once we get around that, we score goals consistently and often. We can score quite a lot.”
Galgano said the team is close and that makes things fun at times, but she noted the importance of each player’s self-motivation this season as a reason for their success.
Her teammate, Stapleton, agreed, saying the Flames have continuously improved and are starting to finally get to a point where they’re playing the type of soccer they envisioned when the season began.
“One of the biggest things I watch for every season is not only skills, but your mindset going into games,” said Stapleton, one of four EMHS team captains. “We typically start the season kind of slow, get nervous. At this point, people have clicked and mentally, they know what they need to do. That allows us to really play our best games.”
That doesn’t mean the Flames are content, however.
In fact, since the loss to VES, Gascho said he’s preached the importance of “not getting content” and staying focused on one game at a time.
“That’s a word I’ve used a lot recently,” Gascho said. “When you win a bunch of games or things are going really well, it’s easy to get content. We want to do the unremarkable things really well. If we’re doing those things really well, we’re getting better every day and that’s what we’re committed to.”
As seniors, Hayes and Landes are familiar with the type of success that’s become routine for the Eastern Mennonite program, but said they don’t let it phase them.
Instead, they said they know they’re playing for bigger purposes.
“You definitely do want to try your best and you do want to see success, but at the same time, we realize it’s not all about winning,” Hayes said. “It’s great to win, but there’s a whole lot more to the game and to walking off the field. Did we play our best. Are we content with the game? How are we going to improve upon whatever we learned today?”
One way for the Flames to do that is by focusing on getting better each day, Gascho said.
“No matter if we win or lose games, we want to make sure we’re a better team and we are going to take what we can away from the game to get better,” Gascho said. “A loss doesn’t destroy us because there is a lot to learn from and we can be better after a loss.”
Losses have been hard to come by for Eastern Mennonite this season, but have happened, and Gascho and the players said it’s OK because they’re not playing simply for wins.
“I think that’s the uniqueness of our program,” Gascho said. “We’re committed to playing for God and playing for each other and that mindset makes it not about yourself. When you go out there and you’re playing for yourself, that’s a pretty hollow thing.
“When you see your teammate working their tail off, you want to match that. When you’re really committed to working together and working for someone else, that’s the culture we want.”
It’s the culture that’s been built by Gascho at EMHS and one that could result in another deep run at the VISAA state tournament in May — something the four captains admitted is a goal.
Evident by the hugs from Stapleton after a frenzy of goals or the laughs between teammates as they prepare for a practice, Galgano said the Flames are all looking for the same thing.
“Every single day, you step on the field with 10 of your closest friends,” Galgano said. “We’ve been practicing for so long and we’ve gotten to know each other really well. Knowing that even when you mess up, you’re going to have 10 people encouraging you is so special.
“This is a special team.”