They came in as freshmen, little in size and little known in stature. They left as Mercer County Tournament champions, having been the nucleus of one of the Colonial Valley Conference’s top girls’ soccer programs over the past two years.
But it wasn’t easy.
Giana Pittaro, Lynzie Morgan and Michaela Miranda were all part of coach Mike Hastings’ first Steinert team in 2014. Pittaro and Morgan as starters and Miranda was called up from JV for the tournament season. Their record was 7-8-3, which was unheard of for the powerful Steinert program.
A winning season returned the following year at 10-7-3, and last season the Spartans went 19-3 but did not lay claim to a single trophy. Their three losses cost them a division title, and eliminated them from the state and county tournaments.
“Of course it’s frustration when you come out and freshman and sophomore year we didn’t have a great year,” Pittaro said. “And then winning nothing last year. It’s frustrating but we kept working at it. Practice, practice, practice. And we just came together, and we finished. Now we’ve got something to show for it.”
It came together in a big way this fall, just as Hastings told them in would back in ninth grade. Steinert went 19-2-1, won the Colonial Valley Conference’s Patriot Division and was Mercer County Tournament champion for the first time since 2006. It reached the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III semifinals before losing a 2-1 heartbreaker to Toms River East.
It was an elevator ride that just kept going up for the “Three Spartaneers.”
“Where to begin with G (Pittaro) and Lou (Morgan),” Miranda said. “We’ve been playing soccer together since we were 7. They’ve had a huge impact on Steinert soccer. They started with Hastings his first year and built it up to now. We told each other we’d make our last year the best, and I think we did. Last year we were devastated that we couldn’t help the seniors win a banner, so this year we won the CVC and MCTs for them.”
Asked what changed from this year to last, Miranda said, “I don’t think there was much of a difference. Last year we lost some key players and this year we had to make adjustments and some players really stepped up.”
Steinert assumed dominance early on. After scuffling to a 3-1-1 start with a loss to Allentown and a scoreless tie with Notre Dame, the Spartans took off. They won 17 straight—12 by shutouts—and did not lose again until the season’s final game.
“Preseason, we were playing amazing soccer, winning all our scrimmages,” Morgan said. “The beginning of our season was a little rocky due to pressure and high expectations that were held for us. As the season progressed we just grew every day and thrived to get better. Once we relaxed and realized how good we actually were, things started falling into place.”
Pittaro added that, “Everything fell into place during the Hopewell game. It boosted our morale and carried into the rest of the season.”
Hopewell had been the seniors’ white whale. But a convincing 4-0 win on Sep. 16 proved to the Spartans they were ready to harpoon some big ones.
“A striking moment I specifically remember was beating Hopewell Valley and thinking to myself ‘This is our year,’” Morgan said. “The past three years Hopewell has always been a tough fight, and last season that was our only loss in the regular season. I sort of knew from the start that this season was going to be something special. Hastings promised me since day one that we’d get to a certain point and we went well past that.”
And while it’s nice to win all the time, success is often cherished more when it must be earned. The 2014 season was not pleasant for an extremely young team and, despite a winning season the next two years, there were some tough times as well.
“Struggling my freshman and sophomore year and even junior year in the postseason definitely makes me appreciate our accomplishments more,” Pittaro said. “Knowing how it feels to lose in the big moments and to finish with a record that isn’t is so great made the team work that much harder this year, and made the rewards that much better.”
Morgan took 2016 harder than the first two seasons. Those 19 victories all added up to nothing when it came to being the best at something. But the midfielder felt Steinert used that disappointment in a positive way.
“Last year was nothing but devastation, although very motivating for us underclassmen at the time to get back at it the next time around,” she said. “We ended 19-3 with absolutely nothing to show for it. This year we took that bottled up anger and ran with it.”
Morgan, Pittaro and Miranda were the lead runners, as each was named to this year’s Mercer 33 team. And all three grew as players while Hastings grew as a head coach.
“It’s special, it really is,” Hastings said of the bond. “I’ve learned from them, they’ve learned from me. When you go through the tough times early on, it’s difficult. Now we have a division title and a Mercer County title. It’s a testament to those girls believing in me, and me believing in them.”
Pittaro is the daughter of Lisa Gmitter Pittaro, arguably Steinert’s greatest female soccer player. She proved she has skills of her own, with 19 goals and 13 assists, while also playing outstanding in the back. She finishes her Steinert career with 46 goals and 30 assists, good enough to play for Yale University’s women’s soccer team next year.
Morgan—whose biggest value was the intangibles of getting to loose balls and head balls while being “the engine that makes us go” according to Hastings—had five goals and eight assists and will continue the Steinert soccer pipeline to Rowan next year. Miranda had six goals and five assists, including goals in state tournament wins over Westampton Tech and Lawrence. She is still deciding on a school.
It was hardly a three-girl team, however, as an impressive 16 players scored goals and four others had assists.
“We had a deep bench with awesome skills they all brought to the table,” Morgan said. “Girls came off the bench and made huge impacts. That’s what it’s all about. Not just having one or two players get all the glory, but everyone as whole.”
Senior Casey Grehan got hot late in the season and finished with 10 goals and six assists. Senior midfielders Ashley Navarro (7 goals, 5 assists) and Emily Gulsby (3 G, 5 A) were strong two-way players.
The defenders were a massive part of the success and several contributed offensively. Senior Tatiana Dorner had a goal and six assists while junior Gabby DeLisa scored twice on long free kicks in the MCT final against Allentown. Junior Chloe Zoldi and senior Kristen Pirrocco rounded out the defense and Erika Golik, a converted defender in just her second year in goal, helped it all come together. Golik spent much of the campaign directing a defense that did not allow many shots, but came up with a memorable performance in the MCT semifinal shootout win over Pennington.
Other seniors include Cara Bernstein, Kaylie Skillman, Lauren Kiefer, Jordan Jones and Emily Inman. Despite 14 graduates, there will be talent returning. Juniors Brielle Flodmand (6 goals, 4 assists), Riley Scharko (4 G, 3 A) and Jessica Brady (4 G, 1 A) and sophomore Crysten Wood (3 G) came off the bench to contribute in various ways.
It was a group that reached its zenith by knocking off perennial MCT champion Pennington in the semifinals and avenging its only loss of the regular-season by beating Allentown in the finals. Miranda called it “hands down a top three experience throughout my high school career.” Morgan said, “It was an unreal feeling that I will forever cherish ‘til the end of time.” Pittaro assured that, “Winning in the semifinal and final were the highlights of the season.”
It was followed by the lowlight three games later when Steinert let a 1-0 lead slip in the final 25 minutes against Toms River East.
Morgan, however, was not about to let that game ruin two months of outstanding memories.
“Unfortunately we can’t change the past,” she said. “But all in all, our season was definitely one to remember and I’m so lucky to have been a part of it all.”
Just as Steinert was lucky to have her, Pittaro and Miranda. Along with one heck of a supporting cast.