After tinkering with his defensive formation for parts of last season, Hopewell Valley Central High girls’ soccer coach John McGinley finally got things settled by the state tournament.

And he has never looked back.

Junior Mea Allex and senior Nikki Evich helped Hopewell Valley out to a 5-0 start with no goals conceded this season. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

The pairing of Mea Allex and Nicolette Evich as central defenders formed the perfect partnership in the back, as their work helped the Bulldogs to an NJSIAA Group III Central championship.

The magic has carried over into this season. With Allex and Evich still anchoring the defense, Hopewell had not allowed a goal in a 5-0 start.

“Going into the states, we just said, ‘We’re gonna ride you guys in the middle and you’re gonna play there,’” McGinley said. “They did a tremendous job. In the post season they really kind of came together.”

The two began partnering off and on midway through the 2019 campaign. Evich, a senior, is a lifetime defender while the versatile Allex, a junior, has played all over the field.

“I never really played offense,” Evich said. “It’s not my strong suit. I enjoy defense. It’s a certain pressure, but I find it fun to know, ‘Oh I shut her down.’ When you beat someone to a ball or block a shot, I just like that feeling a lot.”

In assessing what makes a good defender, Evich said, “I think it’s confidence and having a short memory. I know if they score and you make a mistake it gets in your head, so I think it’s important to keep your head up and just keep going. I think that’s been super important for me to keep going.”

Allex slotted in all over the field before settling in the back midway through last season. She began her rec career as a goalie and a striker, but did not play defense until eighth grade, when her club team had an opening.

“I played outside back for a while, but I didn’t switch to center back until my freshman year, and even then I was playing striker,” Allex said. “I’ve played everywhere on the field but goalie.”

There was a reason for that.

“Mea’s just a great athlete,” McGinley said. “Freshman year, she kind of filled in when I felt we needed someone at different spots. Last year she played sometimes at center, sometimes at outside. It wasn’t that she couldn’t handle the center, but she was better on the outside than some of the people we had.”

Midway through the season, Allex started to see increasing time in the middle; and it became permanent in the states.

“It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve really enjoyed it,” she said. “I think I’m made to be more of a defender in terms of my size and my speed. I think that really works out because I’m such a competitive person that it’s really nice to be able to compete for the ball in terms of balls in the air, balls on the ground and just stepping to it, and being able to lay it off and ignoring more of that technical aspect. I think it plays more to my strengths.”

Her pairing with Evich has solidified a back line that features seniors Claire Tellier and Jamie Wills on the outside, and sophomore Lucy Fleming in goal. Allex is quick to point out the stingy defensive numbers are due to more than those five.

“It starts with our strikers and midfielders,” she said. “They do a great job of getting back and a lot of times Nikki and I don’t have to do the work because the ball never gets to us.”

When it does get to them, attacking players have a difficult time getting any further. In the season’s first five games, opposing teams garnered just nine shots on goal.

After deploying Allex to different spots, McGinley finally decided, “She’s just a big strong kid, and she’s more of a natural defender.”

As for Evich, she has settled into her role of being a veteran leader whose comfort level has made her an even tougher defender.

“She’s a very tough, physical kid, and she’s a smart kid,” McGinley said. “You can see her being more aggressive in that role. She’s very good at one-v one defending. They both actually can get forward a little bit, but Nikki’s more of that kid who excels in one-v-one.

“She has also improved and developed her ability to attack. She’s worked on that a lot to make some runs here and there. She’s got very good ball control and is very good with the ball at her feet and able to dribble through and create that way.”

The coach noted that Evich leads by example, while Allex is more of a vocal leader. It is a mix that works well.

“We’ve just become very good together and just flow with each other,” Evich said. “I think a lot of it is just natural at this point. We still talk a lot (on the field) out of habit. But most of it is pretty fluid.”

Allex feels that getting time together last year was a big key to the chemistry.

“On every kick or punt, I’ll know where Nikki will be or where I’ll be and we have our positioning worked out,” she said. “She’s such a great player that it makes my job a lot easier. She does a great job of being a wall back there so it’s really nice. I know I can trust her.”

There appears to be a trust level throughout the field for Hopewell, and in a normal season it would be easy to have dreams of Mercer County and state titles. But there is no MCT this year and just an abbreviated state tournament will only crown sectional champions instead of state champs.

While it’s easy to think “what if”, the dynamic defenders are happy with “what is” considering COVID-19 could have wiped out the entire season.

“It does stink not to compete in the county tournament, because I think we could go really far,” Allex said. “But personally I’m really happy to be playing. I love being out here, I love being with all my friends and just competing.”

Evich agreed. “It’s hard with this being my senior year but I’m happy we’ve got a season in general. There’s nothing you can really do about it, so I’m happy we’re having at least something. It’s unfortunate but we’re just trying to make the best of it,” she said.

They appear to be doing just that.