WENDELL — Here’s a statistic most business owners would love: East Wake’s girls soccer program grew by 43 percent this year.
Last year’s roster of 22 players mushroomed to 39 this season, causing Warriors coach Crystal Espey to create a junior varsity team for the first time at the school.
“That is so big for this program,” Espey said. “We’ve got a lot of sophomores and juniors on the JV team who are going to get some playing time this year and they’ll really be able to step in and contribute next season.”
But first things first. The Warriors were scheduled to open their season Tuesday night at home against Cary. They’ll take the field this season with eight seniors, several of whom have played since their freshman year. Espey says she’s looking to some of those seniors, including co-captains MaKenzie Gairrett and LA Tedder.
Tedder filled in as a keeper during her sophomore season, but moved into the field as a junior. With the graduation of Dre Todd, Tedder will move back into goal on a full-time basis. She’ll be helped defensively by Gairrett who Espey says is capable of keeping Tedder clean.
“They both communicate very well. They are loud and they do a good job of keeping people in the positions they need to be,” Espey said. Another senior defender and a four-year starter, Keslee Snuggs, will be important in jumpstarting the offense from the back line.
“She’s got really strong ball-handling skills and she can turn from defense to offense really smoothly, so I wouldn’t mind it if she moved the ball down the field for us from time to time,” Espey said. “When she’s on, she can really do some things with the ball.”
The offensive picture is a little more muddled for the Warriors. Sophomore Ashton Cannon was East Wake’s leading scorer as a freshman last season and returns for her second campaign. Espey said she is trying to decide the best lineup and Cannon could start as one of the team’s forwards or in a mid-field position.
“We want to get her to where she’s looking up and seeing the whole field,” Espey said. “If she can see what’s going on around her, she’s fast enough and good enough with the ball that she could really set up some opportunities for us.”
She will play alongside Kalyn Johnson, who has bypassed her junior year of academic eligibility and will play as a senior this spring. Sandy Gonzalez, a sophomore playing this season for the first time, has also impressed the coaches and figures to have a big role on the offensive side of the ball.
After two straight seasons in the playoffs, Espey took over an East Wake team that struggled in her first season. But she’s had a chance to assess last season’s body of work and she has some specific ideas about how to improve.
“We want to work on our corner kicks and our goal kicks,” she said. “We had some chances last year that I think we want to be able to convert this season.”
Espey doesn’t consider her players a track squad. Nor, she says, will they outmuscle every team they play. “I think we’re capable of playing either way. We’ve got some players that can get the ball out in space and get down the field in a hurry, but we can be aggressive at times when we need to be, too.” she said.
West Johnston High School has been the class of the Greater Neuse River Conference for the past several years now, and Espey smiles and nods her head when she’s asked about them. The Wildcats are the favorite to win the title again. But Espey thinks the 2014 version of the Warriors can contend for one of the remaining playoff spots.
To meet that goal, Espey says the team is going to have to develop a sound chemistry. “They need to have confidence in each other and know enough about each other that they will know where everybody’s going to be on the field at a given moment,” Espey said.
If that happens, the Warriors could be competitive with the rest of the league.
Whitfield: 919-829-4823; Twitter: @easternwakenews