PHIL HAWKINS - North Marion sophomores Emma Holum (left) and Mar Verastegui play opposite of each other at the Huskies fall conditioning session last week. Verastegui earned Second Team all-conference honors, leading the girls soccer team in scoring last year, and is poised for a comeback season after breaking her clavicle in the final game of the 2015 campaign.
It’s been two years since Ben Bonser took over the reins of the North Marion girls soccer team, and the Huskies have been in a slow, upward trend ever since, a pattern the team is looking to build upon heading into the coming fall season.
North Marion enters the 2016 season on the heels of its best year since 2012. Last year’s Huskies finished fourth in the Oregon West Conference with a record of 3-7-4, and while that wasn’t enough to qualify for a postseason berth, it was the second consecutive season under Bonser’s tenure in which the team’s overall record improved over the previous year.
Since then, the Huskies have been hard at work over the summer offseason, putting in a lot of conditioning time while competing in a summer league schedule that pits the 4A North Marion team against a number of 6A programs from the region.
“We’ve been running a lot,” senior left wing Sonia Jimenez said. “We’ve also been working on ball handling and a little bit of scrimmaging. We’ve just been trying to work as a team.”
Jimenez is one of five seniors scheduled to return from last year’s roster, which lost five players to graduation, including all-conference selections Laura Grigorieff and Samantha Pine.
“We lost a lot of good players last year, good defenders, so I’m waiting to see how our defense is going to be and how we work together,” Jimenez said.
The concern on defense is one that Bonser has as well. North Marion has been in the middle of the pack defensively since the team joined the Oregon West the same year that Bonser took over as head coach. The Huskies’ offense has struggled in recent years, but the team has been able to stay in games thanks to a solid defensive unit that is a question mark this year with the graduation of Grigorieff, a Second Team defender.
“Defensively, we’re rebuilding a little bit this year, but we still have some strong players returning and I’m hoping we have some younger players step up,” Bonser said.
But while the defense is uncertain, Bonser and the Huskies feel confident with the offensive talent returning around the ball, even without Pine, an Honorable Mention forward in 2015. In the aforementioned summer league, North Marion’s offense picked up slack and helped deliver a handful of wins against the difficult schedule.
“There were some rough games, but we held our own in a few of them and we were able to claw out some wins,” Bonser said.
Chief among the Huskies’ returning offensive firepower is sophomore forward Mar Verastegui, who led the team in scoring last year. Verastegui broke her clavicle in North Marion’s final game of the season in 2015, but returned to health for the basketball and track seasons and scored nine goals in as many games for the Huskies during the summer soccer season.
The team’s offensive game will be crucially important if the Huskies hope to qualify for the postseason this year. Last year’s team ranked second to last in the Oregon West with just 19 goals in 14 games.
“Last year we had a bunch of ties that easily could have been wins, and we had a bunch of one-goal loss games that easily could have been ties,” Bonser said.
The Huskies scored just one goal or were shut out in 10 games last season. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Huskies also played nine games in which the result was decided by two goals or less in 2015, including seven of their final eight contests. The result in those close games was a disappointing 1-4-4.
Bonser is expecting that a boost in offense, from the natural improvement of his returning sophomores and juniors, should be enough to lift the Huskies from the bottom half of the Oregon West and into the state playoffs for the first time since 2012.
“If everything comes together, we’re poised to make the postseason,” Bonser said.