When six seniors depart a Class 2B girls soccer program, that’s a darn big hit. And when all six received all-league honors, well, get ready to rebuild.
That’s exactly what Highland and head coach Nikki Keller are doing this season, but it’s one of the fastest rebuilds you’ll ever see.
Coming off a 7-2 spring season that was led by that senior class, the Scotties have made all sorts of changes, replaced nearly the entire defense and are using an eighth-grader at goalkeeper. Despite those heavy chores, Highland is off to a 4-0 start in EWAC play and 7-0 overall after defeating Warden 5-0 on Thursday night.
Both sides of the field have been in fine form — the offense has scored 50 goals and the young defense has allowed just one goal in an 11-1 season-opening win over Naches Valley.
“We’re young in so many ways but we’re really fortunate to have two super seniors in Ivette Ramos and Michelle Soto,” noted Keller, who’s entering her 11th season as Highland’s head coach. “They are captains who have given us a senior voice that’s so important and it’s helped create a real cohesive group for this early in the season.”
At the same time Highland had such a deep senior class, led by three-year starting goalkeeper Carolina Arceo, the program also had seven freshmen and two of them are bookending the new crew as sophomores.
Rachael Keller, the coach’s daughter and youngest of four siblings with three older brothers, is a skilled striker for the offense with 12 goals and 11 assists already. At the other end is Anahi Garcia, a center back who Keller believes is the best defender in the league.
Initially, the Scotties had a precocious compliment for Rachael Keller with eighth-grader Avah Farias punching in 10 goals, but Farias has transferred out of the district. That should be a jarring adjustment to account for this early in the season, but the veteran Ramos is a midfielder with plenty of offensive punch, having knocked in eight goals, and junior Lucia Martinez has chipped in five.
Ramos, though, remains at her best in the midfield and along with sophomore Alejandera Gutierrez “all goals go through them,” according to the coach.
“Ivette is very strong and we can move her forward, but we’re still in a process of finding the right mix,” said Nikki Keller, who has seven freshmen and six sophomores among her 20 players. “We haven’t had to work on offense much because our passing and execution up front has been just beautiful. We will be a little more defensive-minded, as we had to be at Goldendale (a 3-0 win on Tuesday), so we can gain more experience in the back.”
Nikki Keller, who was named the SCAC’s coach of the year last spring when Highland played a hybrid 1A-2B schedule, has more on her mind than just field strategy. Injuries and COVID-19 limitations caused the Scotties to cut last season short. They were unable to play in the SCAC’s third-place district game or in the EWAC postseason tournament.
“Last season was tough on the girls, especially when we got knocked out,” the coach said. “We’ve got 20 girls on this team and 17 have been vaccinated. We want to protect the team because as we know it becomes a little like survival of the fittest. The girls have been mindful of it, and we’re doing everything we can to stay healthy.”
The EWAC has seven schools with girls soccer and Highland will have 12 league matches with home-and-away contests against Cle Elum, Granger, Goldendale, Mabton, Burbank and Warden. After playing Naches Valley, Toppenish and College Place, the Scotties have a pair of nonleague matches early next month against Prosser and Okanogan.
“It’s a new league for us but we’re familiar with most of the teams,” Keller noted. “We hadn’t been to Goldendale in two years and Burbank is in just their second year for the program. Cle Elum will be tough and we have two with them ahead of us. Everybody’s excited, engaged and contributing — from the starters through our bench. That’s a recipe for success.”