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St. Helena High girls soccer head 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 St. Helena nine of its 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 St. Helena’s 19 players are underclassmen, including seven freshmen, the Saints return 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 on Sept. 4.

The Saints finished 9-1 in the North Central League I last year and 11-3 overall, and made it to the second round of the CIF North Coast Section Division 1 playoffs before falling to eventual 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 10 players and lost by just one goal. Player turnout was an issue all last season as the Saints also had to forfeit a tiebreaker game against Middletown for the league title.

That’s not an issue for Bunge anymore. With 19 players, the Saints can sub more 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 in which she scored 10 goals and recorded six assists in just 11 games. Heading into Tuesday’s home game against Willits, she has four goals and a team-high three assists.

Leading the team in goals, though, is fellow sophomore Tina Almanza with five. She scored only two in 13 games last year, but seems to getting more comfortable with varsity ball. Marylu Avina has three goals, and senior Jenna Schlatter and freshman Katherine Heffernan each have one.Senior co-captain Andrea Hernandez has two assists.

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.

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

Elliott Dunham and co-captain Blayney Adamson share goalkeeping duties, Schlatter and Hernandez are halfbacks, and sweeper Citlali Garcia anchors a defensive line that is otherwise all freshmen.

“We’re very stout in our defense,” Bunge said. “We have very talented freshmen 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. “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 10 years, is once again the favorite, according to Bunge. The Mustangs are already 11-2 and 4-0 in league games. The Saints, who have seven fewer games scheduled than the Mustangs, currently stand at 3-1-2 overall and second in league with a 3-0-1 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