The Pilgrim girls’ soccer team surprised just about everybody in Division II last year when it stormed to a 13-2-3 regular season record.
And even after a tough 2-1 loss Mount St. Charles in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs, the Pats unquestionably made their mark as one of D-II’s elite teams.
This time around, there won’t be any surprises. Pilgrim is returning 17 players from last year’s team, and is heading into the regular season with its highest expectations in years.
“I certainly believe this team is a legitimate championship contender,” Pilgrim head coach Mike Weber said. “I firmly believe that, from the bottom of my shoes, that this team can make a run.”
It did graduate a few key players, most notably midfielder Meghan Carter, but Weber thinks there is more than enough returning talent to outweigh any losses.
It starts with Pilgrim’s captains, seniors Alessandra Widman, Heather Wolfenden, Amanda Ruggieri and Bella DiPalma.
Widman is a halfback, DiPalma will play up front, Wolfenden will lead the defense at fullback and Ruggieri will split time between stopper, halfback and fullback.
Those four are just the beginning of Weber’s deep roster, though.
“Basically, I have my whole core coming back,” Weber said.
Joining DiPalma as scoring threats are senior Breyon Brown, junior Meghan Sullivan and senior Emma Mascoli. Senior Rebecca LeFebvre will also get some time at striker.
The halfback group consists of Widman, juniors Talia D’Ambruoso, Nicole Starkey, Cara Beneduce and Kassandra Lussier.
On defense, Wolfenden will play alongside seniors Caitlin Pope and Meg Hart, with junior Erica Hammond handling the sweeper duties.
Hammond has been impressive thus far.
“She’s a very good sweeper,” Weber said. “She’s the backbone.”
Junior Talia Geremia will see some time at stopper as well.
In net, senior Shianne Silvia is back from a strong run last year after taking over the duties midway through the season. Junior Kayleen Murphy has also looked good, and Weber expects both players to get time in goal during the season. Murphy can also play halfback, and should help out there when not handling the keeper duties.
Every player in that rotation – from forwards and halfbacks to defense and goalie – was part of last year’s varsity team in some capacity.
“It’s very promising,” Weber said. “I told them that they have to work harder this year than they did last year, because now they’re almost marked. Teams know that they’re going to be a good team, and they’re going to have to come out and play harder every game. They may have snuck up on some teams last year. They’re not going to sneak up on anybody this year.”
There are also three new additions to the team – sophomores Haley McCusker and Clare Birney, plus freshman Katie Vieira – but they will begin the year as swing players and try to work their way into the team’s rotation as the year progresses.
The team has already done some team-building activities since practices began last Monday, even going to the Olive Garden as a team on one occasion.
“They seem to have pretty good chemistry,” Weber said.
It’s that type of excitement and dedication to the team – plus the plethora of talent – that has Weber excited about the season.
The last time Pilgrim won a state championship was in 2000, when it went 7-8-5 in the regular season but caught fire in the playoffs as the No. 6 seed.
Since then, the team has not won a single playoff game. The only time it has even been in the postseason was last year, and it didn’t end the way that the Pats had hoped.
That 2-1 loss is still fresh in the mind of essentially the entire team, and Weber, and it’s serving as a motivating factor.
“They talked about it and they don’t like it. It left a bad taste in their mouth,” Weber said. “I chalked it up to playoff inexperience. I told them, ‘Last year you got a taste of what it was like. Now you’ve got to go out and do it.’”
The Pats will play an Injury Fund game at Warwick Vets on Thursday, and will open up their regular season on Tuesday, September 6 at the Bend Street Complex against Tiverton.