The Ewing High School girls’ soccer team has seen plenty of changes in four years so it’s reassuring to return a rock solid four-year player like Ally McConnell.
“I think it’s going to be a growth year,” said the EHS senior. “We lost a lot of seniors and had eight or nine starting. I’m confident in this season. I think we’re all working well during the preseason. We’re going to have to work together and work hard.”
McConnell and the Blue Devils have their third new head coach in four years. After Mike Reynolds finished his eighth season in 2015, Ellen Murphy coached the last two seasons before stepping down to have her first child this year. In her place, Ewing elevated her assistant and JV coach Shannon Pedersen, who grew up in Ewing, and after college, she returned to teach at Fisher Middle School.
“I had almost all of them for their entire high school career,” Pedersen said. “Even before the middle school positon, I volunteered at the high school for a season.
“It’s been a tremendous help being familiar with the way it’s run at the high school. I’ve had not only a lot of support from the girls, but also from the other coaches of teams at Ewing and the Ewing administration like Bud Kowal and Caryn (Lawton) in the athletic office.”
Pedersen inherits a team that went 6-12, but pulled an upset win over Governor Livingston in the first round of the Central Jersey Group II state tournament with a goal from McConnell before being edged, 2-1, by highly regarded second seed Johnson the next round.
“There’s a lot of good energy with the start,” McConnell said. “We’re ready for the new season. There’s good chemistry because a lot of us have been playing together for a while.”
The Blue Devils are putting the pieces together to replace the graduated seniors. They will use a mix of young players and older veterans who will be in bigger roles.
One of the latter is Devon Kueny, a senior this year who came off the bench last year for a wide midfielder, and expects to see more time now in the field and in goal for the graduated goalie Mary Bystrycki.
“This year, as Mary left I think I’ll be mostly in goal,” Kueny said. “I’ll definitely get reps at midfield. I played goalie since I was younger. I played for JV my freshman year. I know the position so I don’t have a problem playing there.”
Versatility isn’t an issue for Kueny, who will share time in goal with Marian Ordonez. Kueny is one of the most well rounded athletes in Ewing. She wrestles in the winter and plays softball in the spring. She stays versatile in soccer.
“When we’re doing shooting drills, I make sure I get reps both shooting and in goal,” Kueny said. “When I’m in goal, I like to talk to my players and make sure they know what’s going on and who their mark is. When I’m in the field, I try to keep that as well. Players are used to hearing my voice so I don’t want it to be a change.”
McConnell, too, will be on the move. She played a forward position last year and has eight career goals.
“This year, I’m probably going to be playing center mid,” she said. “I’m used to playing up top. I’m used to playing the middle too so it’ll be OK. I think this year I’m going to be focusing on making the plays happen. Last year, I was more trying to make the goals happen.”
She’s also going to be relied on for leadership. Putting her in the middle of the field puts her in the center of everything.
“I have a leadership role now because as a senior I should be showing leadership to all the younger ones coming up,” McConnell said. “As a freshman, that was me, looking up to the seniors at that point.”
Both Kueny and McConnell are hoping they can raise the standards for Ewing. They want their final season for the Blue Devils to be their best, and they understand that their class has to take the lead.
“I think we’re good,” Kueny said. “There are a lot of people stepping up to their positons and taking leadership. People are realizing we’re the leaders now and we have to set the example and lead the younger kids. They’re filling the shoes well.”
Pedersen and assistant coach Angelina Gummel, another Ewing product, have 20 players to choose from for varsity minutes.
Competing for Ewing will be: Rukayat Ahmed, Haley Allen, Andie Barnes, Selma Benkhoukha, Abigail Buker, Bailey Gummel, Sianni James, Deandra Joseph, Kueny, McConnell, Marian Ordonez, K’La Peyton, Lanie Picerno, Kyla Pischel, Yah’Rai Rodriguez, Olivia Ruch, Louisa Scozzaro, Ashton Stemler, Melina Towlen and MaChaya Williams-Traylor.
“Last year we mostly practiced as one big group,” Kueny said. “We definitely know Coach Pedersen. It wasn’t as big of a difference as some people expected it to be. We know how she coaches. It wasn’t hard to go from Murph to her.”
Pedersen has been around the program and knows the sort of players that she has. She is looking to bring them together as quickly as possible.
“They have a nice mix this year,” Pedersen said. “We have a really solid defense as well as a strong midfield and forwards. We have a lot of speed. Andie Barnes and Kyla Pischel are back. They were veterans on varsity last year.
“I’m very keen on organization. Throughout the defense, that’s the building block. But you can’t score without a midfield and offense. The key will be possession and maintaining possession of the ball and building forward.”
Pedersen is relying on her playing experiences and past coaching opportunities to guide her first varsity job.
She has played for more than 20 years. She played scholastically at Notre Dame High before playing for Kean University. She has been happy with the attitude that she has seen early from the Blue Devils.
“The one thing that I’ve seen that has impressed me is the positivity,” Pedersen said. “It’s something you can’t coach. They’re encouraging the new athletes as well as pushing one another. It’s really encouraging as a coach to see that.”
She’s thrilled to be able to return to her hometown to coach the varsity soccer team. She’s invested in the school’s and her players’ well-being.
“It’s encouraging to see young women like myself going through the community and growing,” Pedersen said. “I want them to be successful and make our community proud and be leaders on and off the field. It’s nice to be a part of it.”
The Ewing players are determined to keep the positivity and keep everyone on the team involved. McConnell lists how fast the veterans can bring the newer contributors up to speed as a key to this season.
“Building up the younger girls that we have on varsity, trying to get them to get involved and get them used to varsity play,” McConnell said. “Working together and figuring out how each other works and working well with each other. A lot of us are new to the varsity team this year.”
Those more experienced players have tried to set an example early of how Ewing has to play this year. They are finding how to make their team more cohesive.
“Last year, we had trouble communicating a little bit,” Kueny said. “We’re working hard on moving the ball and we’re trusting our teammates to be where they need to be. We’re talking about doing things before we do them so our teammates are aware we’re going to do them and they’re not surprised.”
The older players are using their past to guide them this year. McConnell, who plays club for Next Level Soccer Academy and hopes to continue in college, is one of the most experienced players in the entire area.
“Being on varsity for the past four years, I’ve been playing against the other teams,” McConnell said. “I know what teams are good and what teams we have competition against. I’m not nervous this year. We have a lot of work to do, but I think we’ll be good against the other teams in the CVC.”
Kueny is optimistic because of how the team has started their preseason. They have had daily practices plus three scrimmages in preparation for the Sept. 6 opener at Hamilton West.
“I’m really excited to see how we work as a team,” Kueny said. “I think we’re already really close after one week. I can only imagine what an entire season will do for the connections on the team.”