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St. Helena girls soccer coach Tash Bunge has quite the challenge in just his second year leading the Saints.

Bunge and the Saints experienced a mass exodus of players after a successful 2017 season. A combination of club team commitments, injuries and graduation cost the Saints nine of their 11 starters from last year, sending Bunge back to the drawing board to try and field a competitive team.

That hasn’t been a problem.

Even with the losses from last season, the Saints look poised for another playoff run. While 11 of the Saints 19 players are underclassmen, including seven freshmen, St. Helena returns a strong core of senior leaders, who should pair nicely with their younger players.

“We’re replacing a lot of pieces but we have the right pieces in the right places,” Bunge said before the Saints’ 7-3 win over Clear Lake last Tuesday.

The Saints finished 9-1 in league last year, 11-3 overall, and made it to the second round of the section playoffs before falling to eventual section champ Fortuna 2-1. That game was a large reason why Bunge is so optimistic about this season. The Saints played that game with a roster of only ten players and lost by just one goal. Player turnout was an issue all last season as the also Saints had to forfeit a tiebreaker game against Middletown for the North Central League I title.

That’s not an issue for Bunge anymore. With a roster of 19 players now, the Saints can sub in more players and attack with a faster playstyle.

“It undulates up and down so that now we have a really good turnout for girls soccer and we’re going to continue to do so,” Bunge said. “Last year we had a great team with a lot of seniors. … But this year, we have the numbers. So we may not have the experience, but we’ve got the numbers and I really think that’s going to help us even more in the long run.”

Bunge is still working on developing a solid foundation for the program, but he’s already seeing results. Sophomore Cydney Adamson is coming off a freshman year where she scored 10 goals and recorded six assists in just 11 games. As of Monday, she already has three goals in the four games the Saints have played. Leading the team in goals, though, is fellow sophomore Tina Almanza with four. She only scored two in 13 games last year, but seems to getting more comfortable with varsity ball.

Their production is welcomed. The Saints need to replace the offensive numbers that they lost with the graduation of Cynthia Vargas, who scored 34 goals over her junior and senior seasons.

Asides from scoring, the Saints need to replace much of their leadership from last year as well. They currently only have four seniors on the roster but all four play at integral positions.

Elliot Dunham and Blayney Adamson both currently share goalkeeper duties, while Citlali Garcia anchors a defensive line that is all freshmen.

“We’re very stout in our defense,” Bunge said. “We have very talented freshman in Kaley Mara and Olivia Smith and Dolce Valerga, who are all starting on the back but are very solid back there. It’s nice because they’re led by our senior leadership in Citlali so we’re very firm back there.”

Bunge said he is still experimenting at the forward positions, mainly trying to see what he has since this team is still so new to him

“I’m still learning names,” he said last week. “But it’s all systems go so to speak. I’m really excited for the season. I get nervous a little bit because I want it so badly for the girls. I really do.”

A year after finishing second in the NCL I, the Saints figure to be back in the mix for the league title. Middletown, which has claimed the league crown the past ten years, is once again the favorites, according to Bunge. The Mustangs are already 9-2 and 2-0 in league games. The Saints, who have seven fewer game scheduled than Middletown, currently stand at 2-1-1 but are tied for first in the league with a 2-0 record.

“I think that we can battle them for first place, but that’s way in the future,” Bunge said.

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Sports Reporter