ROCHELLE — Chris Blevins knew it would be a difficult season for the Lady Hubs varsity soccer team.
Taking over the girls soccer program after former head coach Keith Lamb resigned last summer, Blevins was unsure what to expect as he prepared to take the reigns for the first time. With minimal numbers and a tough conference schedule staring him down, Blevins kept a positive approach throughout the season, and he was encouraged by how his girls continued to battle despite having to face a slew of difficult opponents.
“We had a drop-off in numbers which doesn’t surprise me because of the change-over, but the girls who did come out… We had small victories throughout the season,” Blevins said. “Now that we’ve had this year and some of the younger girls have had a chance to play at a higher level, we’re hoping the experience will put a little spark into them.”
Blevins, who has served as an assistant for the boys team since 2012, said he resigned from the boys soccer program in order to put more effort into rebuilding the girls soccer program. One of the initiatives he’s taking is introducing open soccer sessions this coming fall for high-schoolers and middle-schoolers who may be interested in joining the team.
The first-year head coach said his ultimate goal is to field enough players to form a junior varsity team, something Rochelle hasn’t had over the past few years.
“I know there are some girls who play other sports that are looking at coming out next year,” he said. “With the level of experience we had this season, our seniors and a few of our juniors were the only girls who had played before. The rest of the girls were new… I’d like to see about 35 girls come out next year since that would allow us to have two teams and we can start building the fundamentals.”
The Lady Hubs finished the 2016-17 season with a 2-13-3 record, which included victories over Mendota and LaSalle-Peru as well as draws to Indian Creek, Hinckley-Big Rock and Ottawa. Senior Celeste Almaraz led the girls with three goals, while senior Ashley Kerns, junior Lisa Knauer and sophomore Gillian Higby each put in two goals. Sophomore Keelyn Sarmiento added one goal, and sophomore Holli Drew recorded 216 saves while starting every game this season.
“This was Keelyn’s second year playing soccer and she has progressed so much over the last two years,” Blevins said. “She would go from forward to midfielder, and she’s going to be a great player if she keeps getting after it… Holli has a mean right leg so I’m not sure if she’ll be a keeper or a midfielder next year. Considering the level of the opponents we played this year, she really did a phenomenal job.”
Five seniors (Almaraz, Ashley Kerns, Abby Kerns, Alyssa Stauch and Nancy Torres) will be graduating and leaving the program, which will create opportunities for some of the program’s younger players to step up. A few players who could return to action next year are juniors Sally Infante, Rhylie Erdman and sophomore Olivia Piloni.
“Something just clicked for Sally at the Indian Creek game, and it was like she was suddenly there to play soccer,” Blevins said. “She was beginning to make things happen for us before she got hurt and it was exciting to see her enthusiasm for the game… Rhylie’s probably going to be stepping into more of a leadership role next year, and when she asked me what she needs to work on I told her to keep her head up and know where the other players are on the field… Olivia will be our anchor for the next few years. She knows the game, she’s a quality player and the girls respect her.”
As for his seniors, Blevins said he’ll miss their leadership and their positive attitude the most. With the offseason now underway, Blevins said he’ll be looking for his returning players to show the same versatility and toughness that the team’s five seniors displayed this season.
“Celeste did a great job maintaining her position and playing at a high level,” Blevins said. “Abby Kerns was rock solid and she was always taking charge and being a great leader for the team… I told Nancy she should’ve come out as a freshman. This was her first year playing and her energy and determination was something that, if we could’ve duplicated it… It’s hard to teach that.”