Revamped Tar Defense Finds Identity
The 2017 and 2018 seasons were record-setting years for the Anchor Bay Girls Soccer Team. In those two years, the Lady Tars posted thirty shutouts and recorded thirty-six wins, including back-to-back district championships.
"We graduated so many quality defenders the past two years," said Coach Grammens. The Tars had to replace four senior starters, who had helped keep opponents to only nine goals in 2018.
"Many times the defensive line doesn't get enough credit. They are the unsung heroes of the squad," he added.
This year's team found itself in uncharted waters. Having given up eight goals in six games and going 2-1-3, the Tars were searching for an identity and stability on defense. "Building a defensive backline is like building an offensive line in football," Grammens said. "It takes time to get to know one another. Everyone has a unique skillset and tendencies. It's a process that doesn't happen overnight."
Although second-team All-State goalkeeper Ally Gaunt returned from the past two seasons, the Tars still lacked cohesiveness. Gaunt said of the defense, "Our back line this season needed to be rebuilt from scratch." She added, "From where we started to where we are now, the growth is amazing. We are working extremely well with each other." Gaunt believes, "The defense deserves more credit. They are the backbone of the team."
With a few formation changes and player buy-in, the new defense started to gel. In the seventh game of the year, the Tars shutout a dangerous Utica Eisenhower attack 1-0. After that game, the Tars went on to post shutouts in five of their next six contests going 6-0-1.
The defensive line is composed of sophomores Riley Barone and Gabriella Hunter and seniors Karina Arnold and Peyton Hodgson. Last season, Arnold played in the midfield for the Tars, but an injury that sidelined dual-sport athlete Jessica Bertolini opened a spot on the backline.
"Karina selflessly did what was best for the team and said she would step up and play defense," Grammens noted. "She has helped stabilize the defense with her calmness and vision."
Arnold said the change presented a challenge. "Going from midfield to defense was a switch of environment, but creating a bond and friendship with these three is something that will never be taken back," she said.
Another selfless player, attacker Riley Barone, committed to playing outside back. "It took a bit of adjustment being a scoring forward to becoming one of the four defenders," she said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. We have built a bond that can't be replaced."
Grammens added, "Riley brings an attacking mindset and tenaciousness to our defense."
The Tars defense seems to have found its identity.
"It's my last season playing competitive soccer, and I wouldn't trade it in," said Hodgson. "I've gotten so close to the backline. The more we talk on the field, the closer we become off of it. We can also trust our goalkeeper."
Gabriella Hunter, whose sister Isabella is a vital part of the midfield, has been a consistent centerback, bringing relentless effort and energy in training sessions and on game days.
"I think my role in the backline has taught me how to be a better leader even though I'm coming in as a new player on the team," she said. "Contributing to the shutouts and playing an important role has been a special experience. It's been a lot of hard work, communication, and effort from me and my teammates in the defense."
With Bertolini, Hodgson, Arnold, Barone, and Hunter committed to making sure Ally Gaunt sees limited action in net, the Tars look to continue their success and growth as they embrace the chase toward a strong MAC Red finish and what looks to be a tough district once again.