PATASKALA – Coach Mitch Tom was pleasantly surprised.
The Licking Heights girls soccer team possesses far more skill than what is expected from a team that won just two games a year ago. Unfortunately for Tom, who had been out of coaching for a couple years since leaving OSU-Newark, games will be won and lost on depth.
The Hornets have a solid starting lineup. They, however, lost three potential players to injury before the season, and just two weeks into the season, a few more are dealing with nagging injuries.
“As far as our performance overall, we have definitely seen a lot of improvement,” Tom said. “I haven’t been here last year, so I can’t tell you how they were, but just speaking with captains and older girls on the team, it was a struggle.”
The experience begins with junior Jenna Tishenkel, who was named to the Licking County League first team a year ago, and senior Amber Dunkle. Tom moved Tishenkel from defense to the midfield while Dunkle is right behind her, playing the stopper position and providing the link between senior goalkeeper Rachel Bernthold and the rest of the Hornets on the field.
Tishenkel was moved because Tom said the Hornets need to be strong in the middle. They have just that with their standout added to the young talent of junior Ellie Pastor and freshman Trinity Isom.
“To me, the battle is won and lost in the midfield,” Tom said. “If we can’t attempt to win there, you are not going to win a match. Jenna is the foundation of our team. It starts there from her ability to defend to her ability to attack. She is just an all-around player.”
The offense was provided by senior Maddie Dixon in a 6-2 season-opening victory against first-year program Hamilton Township on Aug. 17. Dixon had two goals and two assists in that game, and she will have help on either side of her from freshmen Zoe Estep and Mckenzie Mahl.
Dixon, who also scored in a scrimmage against Philo, nearly kept her hot streak alive with a goal against defending state runner-up Granville. She just missed high during Heights’ 7-0 loss to the Blue Aces.
“You want to talk about a leader? She is a leader,” Tom said. “She will push you and tell you bluntly what you need to do.”
Heights has 10 freshmen among its 18 players, and it is a great sign for a program that still is just three years old. Also contributing this season will be Aubrey Barrington and Regan Hamilton in the defense and Lilly Callander and Kibret Zerayesus on the right wing. Zerayesus is particularly skilled at winning balls in the air, making her dangerous around the goal on corner kicks.
Soccer is the primary sport for many of the freshmen, and because they have played on club teams, they came into the high school program with an advanced knowledge of the sport. Now, they need time in the weight room to help their bodies catch up.
“As far as some these girls’ footwork, some of it is great,” Tom said. “I can’t be happier with that, but there comes a physique issue. You are dealing with less strength because their frame isn’t where it needs to be at.”
The biggest question yet to answered is how Heights will deal with adversity. The schedule does the Hornets no favors as on Thursday they host Watkins Memorial, which shared the LCL title with Granville a year ago. The nonleague schedule also includes games with perennial powers Columbus Academy and Bloom-Carroll.
Tom would not give a specific number of wins as his goal, but he did say he wants to see the Hornets improve on their finish in the LCL. After competing with long stretches against Granville, he is encouraged the Hornets can navigate the learning curve.
“We kind of had to change the culture that it is not OK to miss practice and it is not OK to only give 50 percent,” Tom said. “We are going to have constant barriers up in front of us.”