Al Iantorno would have been lucky to have a couple of year-round players on his first Pleasant Hill girls’ soccer teams. He had players who worked hard, but few of them had the skills to compete at a state-championship level.
My, how times have changed for the Chicks.
“It’s just night and day, totally different,” Iantorno said. “In the past, we had two or three players that could play at that level and we struggled. Right now, we have 12 or 13 players that can play at that level.”
As the number of year-round club players grew through the years, so did Pleasant Hill’s success.
The Chicks have won three straight district title and finished last season 18-5, advancing all the way to the Class 2 quarterfinals. With plenty of club players and several key pieces back from last season, Iantorno expects that trend to continue.
“With the exception of a couple of players, all the varsity players are club players right now,” Iantorno said. “And they’re playing at that level. I’m very happy with that and there’s a lot of young kids that are playing club soccer, especially on the girls’ side. So the future looks very bright.”
Iantorno, who is starting his eighth season as the Chicks’ coach, credits most of that influx of club talent to the girls themselves.
For years, Pleasant Hill struggled to keep up with Harrisonville and Grain Valley, two Missouri River Valley West Conference rivals that are stocked mostly with year-round players. In 2013, Grain Valley ended Pleasant Hill’s 5-11 season with a 6-0 win in districts.
“Harrisonville and Grain Valley are top dogs in the conference and the girls saw what they had,” Iantorno said. “The word got around that, hey, if you want to play against Harrisonville and you want to play against Grain Valley, you got to play year-round.”
Chicks forward Mackenzie Dimarco plays for a club team, and she’s seen the difference having more year-round players has made. Dimarco, a junior, said more of her teammates have better skills and are in better shape.
“It’s learning to play the game at a faster pace versus girls who haven’t played for nine months,” Dimarco said. “It’s a major difference.”
Dimarco’s skills will be used to spearhead a Pleasant Hill attack that returns most of its top goal scorers. She scored 64 goals last year and boasts 136 during the past two seasons. Senior Autumn Ferguson, a midfielder who has signed with UMKC, has 90 goals in her career.
Jacey Faust, a sophomore forward who tallied 28 goals last year, also is back, but she’s sidelined indefinitely with a stress fracture.
“I think we’ll be fairly strong up front, and once we get Jacey back up there we’ll be back to our normal selves,” Dimarco said.
Junior defender Cassie Waddle returns to anchor Pleasant Hill’s back line, but the Chicks are unsettled at goalkeeper. Last year’s starter graduated and her backup is playing a different position.
Iantorno is looking at Tori Young, a senior who started during the Chicks’ jamboree March 13 with Cameron and Lee’s Summit’s junior varsity, as well as junior Saylor Young in goal.
“That’s the only concern we have right now is the goalkeeping situation,” Iantorno said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us to find a goalkeeper and being able to train them to be able to play at that level.”
But that isn’t keeping Pleasant Hill from setting its sights on a fourth consecutive district crown and another shot at the quarterfinals.
The Chicks season ended last year with a 5-2 loss at Springfield Catholic. If both teams make it that far this spring, Springfield Catholic would have to make the long bus ride — and face another team stocked with veteran club-level players.
“Hopefully, if we stay healthy, we have the pieces,” Iantorno said. “And the rest is up to me.”