Coach: Derek Fulk, fourth season
Last year's record: 16-6-1
Key returners: Emma Strickler, Sr., GK; Jenna Oliviero, Sr., F; Kate Fisher, Sr., F; Eve Peiffer, Sr., MF; Rebecca Hickernell, Sr., MF; Kiersten Sweigart, Sr., F; Taylor Bossert, Jr., F; Emily Bidelspach, Jr., MF/F; Monica Arnold, Jr., D; Ryelle Shuey, So., MF/F; Jordan Rosengrant, So., D/F; Julia Nelson, So., D.
Promising newcomers: Amaya Phillips, Jr., F; Kaitlyn Sweigart, Jr., D; Kelsi Salem, Jr., D/F; Jennifer Axarlis, So., D/MF; Maddy Welt, So., D/MF; Lily Collins, Fr., D.
Outlook: The ball is cranked high, rising until it tickles the laziest cloud overhead of this captains practice and then crashes back down with an announcement.
The World Cup has officially come to Elco.
Not the once-every-four-years, international affair you know. Instead, a frenzied, 2-on-2 game begun with a boot and played out all inside the 18-yard box where no trophy can capture the pride at stake. The teams consist solely of Raiders, who scratch and claw to score and then scream the country name they’ve chosen once ball strikes net.
While the number of teams and balls may change per round, generally speaking there are only two rules: You must score and the last team to do so is out. The rounds continue until one team remains.
This World Cup, however silly or fierce, is important because it is exactly how a team with enough offensive firepower to fuel two clubs keeps cool.
It’s how a club that will wear a bullseye tightly stitched onto its jersey stays loose.
And it is one way Elco girls soccer, one game from last year’s state tournament, plans to get over the hump this fall. By striking a balance between wind sprints with World Cups, testy individual competition and team-wide cooperation, for every freshman and senior.
“It works because we don’t look as intimidating when we’re screaming and yelling playing World Cup,” laughed Elco co-captain Jenna Oliviero.
And that’s key, because Elco, the strongest contender for a title in the county, returns all four of its Section Three first-team all-stars from a year ago. The Raiders are also a squad that will rely on some up-and-comers to fill lineup holes, specifically at outside back.
Yet the takeaway from any glance at their roster list is this: Elco, winners of three of the last four Section Three titles, is primed for another. And perhaps even more.
“I think if we play to our full potential, we can be really good,” Raiders co-captain Eve Peiffer said. “But I think we still need to work together and we need to really connect on a different level.”
That level, Peiffer says, only comes via a chemistry, where freshmen speak with seniors at ease so later their passes can be as smooth as their words; The kind of camaraderie Elco struck a year ago when then rookie Rylle Shuey won team MVP not only for her 23 goals, but ability to mesh with the club.
Team-bonding activities and games like World Cup play a role in this gelling process, as does a shared, unyielding focus on the next opponent.
“You need to take your opponent like they’re the toughest one out there,” Shuey said. "Teams can sneak up on you.”
Coach Derek Fulk would add one more focal point: steady improvement.
“We’re striving to be better than we were last year,” Fulk said. “Obviously we want to improve as the season goes along and carry that into the postseason."
And if they gel, the Raiders could do one better. They could carry that improvement into the trophy case.
“We do have a lot of potential on this team, with older, experienced players and upcoming people," Shuey said. “We just need to see where it takes us and take everything like it’s our last game.”