by Andrew Garda
The Montclair High School girls soccer team had, by any measure, a successful 2018 season. However, a division title with a 6-1 record, and a 12-6 overall record doesn’t move the needle for second year MHS coach Ashley Hammond.
“I’ve always known how great the program’s been here. Great former coaches and great success in the program,” he said during a break at practice. “So for us not to win a trophy and not to make the final was extremely disappointing. So, I think it’s an expectation in Montclair girl’s soccer that there’s a trophy in the cabinet at the end of the year.”
Not just a division trophy, either. Hammond said it’s both county and state titles or bust.
That’s no mean feat, and even repeating a division title will be tough with their schedule.
“Every time I look down their rosters – I looked at Glen Ridge last year and two or three of those players used to play club for me and [head coach] Oscar [Viteri] has done a great job. I think they’ll be strong again this year,” Hammond said.
Mount St. Dominic, Maplewood, Livingston, West Orange, Newark Academy are all teams Hammond said gave them trouble last year and who only got better this offseason.
“So right there, I’ve named five or six Essex County teams, all of whom gave us good games last year, and I don’t think that’s going to change,” Hammond said.
While a tough schedule makes a division title repeat a difficult task, Hammond knows that at the end of the day that same schedule will get the Mounties battle-tested for post-season tournaments.
“I inherited a tough out-of-conference schedule, and people can say that’s good or bad, but I think it was a good thing last year,” Hammond said. “I think we went right back at it this year with our out of conference games, and we’ve picked only tough teams. So we’re playing a tough schedule from day one and I hope that doesn’t finish until we lift a couple of trophies in November.”
Luckily, MHS will have a very talented team again this year.
While players like Jillian O’Toole and Hanan Abdellatif have graduated, the Mounties have a lot of top notch talent waiting to pick up where the departed seniors left off.
“Mia Rodriquez-Vars has been playing left-midfield for us, she’s a senior. She came back in good shape and has been playing really well. And then Syd Masur is one of the captains. Certainly performance-wise, Claire Manning has looked fantastic so far, so she already has stepped up,” Hammond said.
Rodriquez-Vars, Masur, Manning, as well as Emma Belsky and Shelby Duffy, all will be critical pieces returning to the lineup this year. So will goalie Amelia Platt, though she, like everyone else on the team, shouldn’t get too comfortable. No job is safe, according to Hammond.
For example, while Platt is the presumptive starting goaltender, she is getting pushed by Molly Brumbach. Platt has the experience, and is talented enough to hold Brumbach off, but Hammond is glad there is competition.
“It’s great to have pressure in the goalkeeping department,” Hammond said.
Every job is up for grabs and any player can move up or down the depth chart from practice to practice. Even incoming freshmen are involved, he said.
“We’ve got one freshman who has come in and lit it up and two or three other freshmen who have come in and are making a play for the varsity squad,” Hammond said. “If every year we can get two or three freshmen coming in and making a play for the varsity squad, we’re gonna have a good time of it. And certainly the freshmen squad in general is very, very good this year.”
Hammond wants his players to feel uncomfortable when it comes to their positions right now, and he is upfront and honest with his players about where they stand.
“Each day at the end of every night, I email the girls I tell them if I had to pick a starting lineup for Livingston tomorrow, West Orange tomorrow, this is the 11 I would pick based on today’s training,” he explains. “So your job is to fight your way out of that second list and on to the first list and there are changes every day. That’s the competitive cauldron that North Carolina does. At the end of the day the coach tells you, you missed 10 passes, you shot wide four times and you’re out. We do it similarly.”
Very few players are safe.
“We’ve got pressure in a lot of positions. Syd Masur, Claire Manning aren’t pushed, but for the most part everyone else is, and there’s enough depth on our roster to put pressure on any position. There are several players who go to bed Friday night and wonder whether I’m going to get named after Saturday for Monday’s scrimmage. And I’m ok with that,” he said.
Hammond makes no apologies, in part because he can’t afford to. The Mounties remain in the ultra-competitive SEC American Division, and will aim to compete in a loaded North 1, Group IV state tournament grouping.
Hammond is hoping their schedule will make sure MHS is battle-tested come tournament time, but in the end, he’s not averse to the team doing a little battle-testing on its own in practice either.