Al Iantorno isn’t worried about the basics. Not with this Pleasant Hill girls soccer team.
Iantorno knows the girls he coaches have been well-drilled in soccer skills through all their club-playing experience. But Iantorno wants to see something more than competence when the Chicks take the field.
He wants to see fire.
“Here’s what I tell the girls: We have the technique, we have the tactics and we have the technical,” Iantorno said. “Now play with freedom, play with joy, play with passion. I don’t want them to be stifled.”
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Iantorno wants Pleasant Hill to play with passion because he believes that’s what gives them an edge. It’s the reason why Pleasant Hill finally got past longtime postseason nemesis Springfield Catholic and why the Chicks are making their first-ever appearance in a state soccer tournament.
Pleasant Hill (17-8) played Christian May 30 in the semifinals of the Class 2 state soccer tournament followed by either a championship or third-place match the next day. As the Chicks made their final preparations for their first matches at Swope Soccer Village, Iantorno was certain they wouldn’t still be playing if they didn’t put their heart into their game.
“They know how to play the game,” Iantorno said. “Now, after the basics, what comes next? It becomes emotional, instincts and creativity. That’s the thing that wins games.”
Iantorno saw that Springfield Catholic, which ousted Pleasant Hill in quarterfinals two of the last three seasons, was an organized, methodical team. He knew exactly how the Chicks would have to counter that when they met again May 23 in the quarterfinals.
“I told the girls before the game, ‘Listen, we’re an emotional team. They’re a rational team. Let your emotions flow,”’ Iantorno said. “Sometimes emotional teams can reach a very, very high level. And that’s’ what happened.”
Springfield Catholic had a one goal lead until Pleasant Hill forward Mackenzie Dimarco scored the equalizer with three minutes left in the second half. She ended the game in the first overtime, taking a touch out wide and dribbling inside for shot to the far post and a 4-3 victory.
“We knew we had a chance and that we could do it,” said Dimarco, who scored all four of the Chicks’ goals. “After I scored that goal you could see the excitement in everyone’s face. Even the players on the bench were into the game.”
Pleasant Hill’s passionate and creative play has helped Dimarco score 74 goals this season, by far the most on the team, and 213 for her career. Senior Autumn Ferguson has 92 career goals, but only two this season because Iantoro has moved her to the back line.
Dimarco and Ferguson have played major roles in Pleasant Hill’s progression. When Iantorno took over the program eight years ago, few if any of the Chicks played club soccer. Now almost all of them do. That’s helped turn the Chicks from a struggling program to one that won a fourth consecutive district title this season.
“I feel like we worked more as a team this year,” Dimarco said. “We all connected on the field. We’re becoming more and more like a family.”
But Pleasant Hill’s road to the final four wasn’t completely smooth. Injuries early in the season thinned the roster. The Chicks took their lumps playing against bigger schools like Columbia Rock Bridge and Olathe East.
And they never had a true goalkeeper until Jordan Hoerl, last year’s backup, returned to the net during districts after leg issues kept her from playing in the field.
“We played eight (big-school) teams and we lost every single game,” Iantorno said. “And some people thought we were done and out. But the fact is that by playing those teams we got better.”
Pleasant Hill weathered those storms, and Iantorno believed the Chicks were playing their best soccer of the season going into the Class 2 final four.
And perhaps their most passionate.
“I’m excited,” Dimarco said. “Even if we do lose there’s nothing to be upset about, because the worst that we could do is place fourth in state.”