River Bluff girls soccer can trace the success of 2019 back to six years ago. Five of the current seven seniors on the varsity roster started the program when the doors first opened at the beginning of the 2013 school year.
As the season comes to a close and the playoffs begin in a little less than three weeks, they hope the end result is hoisting the program’s first championship trophy.
The way things have started couldn’t be any better. The Gators are 16-0-1 after Thursday’s 3-1 win over Lexington and are ranked 13th nationally by USA Today.
“They’ve come together as a team,” fourth-year coach KC Dunbaker said. “The team chemistry is the best it’s ever been. It’s a family that is looking forward to every single game, not looking ahead to anything, just trying to do the best every single time they’re on the field.”
This group gained the national notoriety when they won the Viking Cup in late February. In doing so, they toppled a quartet of teams ranked in the preseason Class 5A top 10 poll: Wando, Dorman, Riverside and defending state champion J.L. Mann.
Senior forward Jordan Mishoe, who is fourth on the team with six goals and three assists, agrees that early season success has been a driving force.
“When we got the Wando win, it got our mind into, ‘Oh, we can do this,’ “ Mishoe said. “That made our drive even more and we wanted to push ourselves even harder to beat other teams. It was big for us to beat J.L Mann too since they won state last year.”
Dunbaker thought this team had a chance to be good but running through that early season gauntlet just confirmed his beliefs.
“I think they knew they could be good but going through quality teams like Riverside, Wando, J.L Mann and Dorman — a lot of quality opponents we don’t see throughout the year — helped,” he said. “Being able to see them right at the beginning of the year and being able to play them back-to-back-to-back helped us solidify our purpose and goals and what we can achieve this season.”
One thing the Gators haven’t let happen is getting complacent. The third-round playoff loss to Wando last season still stings, so they’ve used the national ranking more as motivation than anything else.
“When the rankings came out, we were excited to hear it, but we talked to each other and said we couldn’t let that get into our head,” junior defender Hannah Corley said. “We decided it was a great accomplishment for right now, but we needed to continue to get better.”
The Gators certainly haven’t rested on their success. Behind the stellar play of sophomore goalkeeper Jessica Padgett and freshman Katie Freiberger, River Bluff has allowed two goals starting with the March 5 contest against Swansea. They’ve recorded seven shutouts in nine matches and outscored their opponents 33-2 during that time.
“We always talk that the best defense is a good offense,” Dunbaker said. “We like to press and get the ball forward but if a team can’t score on you, it’s very hard to lose. We want to solidify from the back going forward and as we get the ball up top, we don’t allow teams to get it easily back into our end.”
Junior Nicolle Malpartida leads the balanced offensive attack with 13 goals and seven assists. Sophomore Charlotte Sparks has added eight goals and four assists with junior Maddie Poole contributing seven goals and three assists.
Dunbaker hopes to carry this momentum into the postseason.
“Once playoff hits, everyone resets at 0-0,” he said. “Everyone earned that opportunity to be there. There are 32 teams in it and every day half of them get eliminated. Our immediate focus is to win the region and be in the spot we want to be once the playoffs do start.”