High School North girls’ soccer coach Darron Brown with team members Jillian Pelosi and Sarah Carulli at the Mercer 33 Awards banquet last November.

Elise Gardner doesn’t need any rah-rah speeches this year.

The High School North senior won’t be playing in college, and she is intent on making her final season memorable. It’s all the motivation that she needs.

“I definitely want to be competitive this year,” Gardner said. “I want to play my heart out in every single game knowing it’s the last time I play these teams. The North-South game, I gave it my all. I was sprinting everywhere, I was diving, I was doing everything I could because it was the last time.”

Gardner’s efforts were rewarded in a 3-0 win over rival South in just the third game of the season. Gardner blasted in a long free kick for one of North’s goals and helped from her center back spot to secure a shutout for the Knights.

Nora Pehnke made four saves in goal, and the Knights held a 17-4 shot advantage. Jillian Pelosi, the returning all-state forward, and Grace Carulli also had goals while Sierra Counts and Kaitlyn St. Amour had an assist apiece for the Knights.

“The first half, we were kind of nervous,” Gardner said. “We were all thinking, ‘It’s the North-South game and we have to win.’ I thought the second half, once that first goal was scored, we settled down. Jillian scored and then Grace scored. I thought we really brought it that day. There was a lot of motivation to bring it. We showed ourselves that day.”

Gardner is confident that the Knights can continue that sort of play this season. WW-P North returned eight full-time varsity players from a year ago when they went 8-11-1 even after not winning any of their final eight games.

“I feel the experience from last year is going to start to carry over,” said second-year head coach Darron Brown. “We’re more experienced in the back. I had a lot of girls playing varsity for the first time last year.”

The number of returning seniors is a big plus, he says. “They’re experienced and it showed in the South game and they finished it out. I think people have settled into their roles a lot better.”

Last year, there were some growing pains with the transition to Brown. The players and he understand each other better this year and are on the same page in working to start and finish well.

“I think we’ll do better this year now that Coach Brown knows what does help the team, and since we do have a lot of returning players, he can manipulate that and get girls to play with each other,” Gardner said. “I think a lot of things will improve through the year and I expect us to be pretty good by the end of the season.”

Gardner is one of the most experienced players in the Colonial Valley Conference. She has been playing for the WW-P North varsity since her freshman year and she has moved around the field over her career.

Each year, her role has evolved a bit, and she has grown through each change beginning with freshman year when she played left back for former head coach Kevin Mackenzie.

“It helped me develop my left foot,” Gardner said. “I have a pretty decent right foot. I take the goal kicks and free kick. Now I’m confident with my left foot too. It’s all because he put me on left defense, and I was able to do it.”

Sophomore year, she moved to defensive center midfielder. It helped her move forward a little more while continuing to be defensive minded.

“I played with a bunch of the seniors that year—Carli Harpel and Morgan Hendry,” Gardner said. “Then last year, I played center D with Sarah Carulli.”

Carulli graduated, which leaves Gardner as the anchor for a backfield that is shaping up nicely. Fellow co-captain Meg Mishra has stepped into a starting role and Jordan Moritz returns as an outside defender. WW-P North lost Lizzie Bianchine to injury early, but they have found a capable replacement in Ashley Moritz, a freshman.

“Ashley has really brought it, especially being a freshman on varsity,” Gardner said. “Being a senior in the last year and seeing girls like that, I remember when I had to do that. It’s great to see.”

Gardner remembers being scared to make mistakes as a freshman, but the North captains were positive and reassuring. She tries to be the same way now to the less experienced Knights.

“During the games, there’s got to be a leadership role,” Gardner said. “I was a voice last year, but Sarah was really the main voice. During games, I try to direct people and help them out if they’re confused. Off the field, I try to talk to them and have fun. At the end of the day, it’s just soccer and I don’t want anyone to stress too much. I try to do the right thing at the right time.”

Brown says he is thrilled to have one more year with Gardner. He was happy to be reunited with her last season at a higher level.

“She’s been an absolute rock for us for the past two years,” Brown said. “A great story is I coached her when she was 8 years old. I knew then she’d be a great soccer player. She’s been a great leader. She gives us that long ball option. She’s one that wants to move forward. I’ll give her some spurts up top. She’s a real motivator. Hopefully she stays healthy and keeps giving us a lift.”

Gardner got an early start to her career. She can still remember some of the drills that she did as a young child just beginning to play.

‘Especially now knowing I’m not going to be playing soccer in college, I want to go and put everything I have into every practice and game.’

“I’ve had so much soccer in my life,” she said. “I remember in preschool when I was playing soccer. It’s been a part of me since I was a child. I’d love to keep playing it, but not as such a high competitive level. I haven’t had too much of it, but I just want a change.”

It was a tough choice to not pursue soccer in college. Gardner will have one club season with the Players Development Academy after her senior season at North. She feels that extra urgency that comes with being a senior.

“Especially now knowing I’m not going to be playing soccer in college, I want to go and put everything I have into every practice and game,” Gardner said. “I just want to go and play.”

Gardner was encouraged by the early progress of the Knights. They embraced the idea of pushing their attack forward faster, and they have been generating plenty of scoring chances.

“I think we’ve done a pretty good job,” Gardner said. “There is a lot of stuff we can improve on. We’re starting to connect the pieces a little bit.”

Brown agreed: “We’re starting to see the maturity. We had a bit of a slow start. It took a while it find their roles. The play the last three games has been better.”

WW-P North had scoring chances in a 2-0 loss to Lawrence that followed their win over WW-P South. It was a quick two-day turnaround and the Knights didn’t seem to have their legs after the emotional win over their rivals. The Knights had another two-day turnaround and were able to rally to edge Ewing, 2-1, in overtime on goals by Mishra and Counts with Pehnke making six saves. The Knights are hopeful that they can build on their 3-3 start and sustain momentum through the season to send their seniors out on a high note.

“I’m hoping for a really strong finish,” Brown said. “Last year, we didn’t finish strong. We don’t have a lot of numbers in the program, and I felt like we wore down. I hope we can finish stronger this year.”