CANAJOHARIE - It was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
The Canajoharie girls' soccer team had lost 13 seniors from last year's team, but retained their two leading scorers.
With junior forward Jenelle Dillenbeck and leading the way, the Lady Cougars got off to an 11-0 start before suffering their first loss of the season Oct. 8 against Maple Hill, the fourth-place team in the Patroon Conference. They got right back on the winning track Friday with a win over Western Athletic North-leading Galway.
Canajoharie’s Morgan Gray (8) battles Galway’s Felicia Snyder for the ball during Friday’s Western Athletic Conference girls soccer game in Galway. (The Leader-Herald/Paul Wager)
"We wanted to go undefeated," Dillenbeck said. "That was our goal. We knew if we worked hard enough, we would achieve it. We're working pretty hard and doing pretty good so far, but you never know what could happen."
The Lady Cougars certainly didn't know what would happen when preseason camp opened in August. After last year's 7-11 season, 13 seniors graduated from a team that was eliminated in the Section II Class C first round by eventual state co-champion, Hoosick Falls, 9-0.
"We are very young," coach Ellee Fichthorn said. "Right now in August, if you told me this would be our record, I would not have said that. However I have worked with these girls for many years - indoor and summer league - and watched them grow as a team. They work very well together. They've jelled very well together so I knew that we would be strong. I didn't know we would have 11 straight wins. That's been beautiful to watch."
Those 11 straight wins and Friday's win haven't been easy. They won their games by an average of less than three goals per game, a number which is inflated by a nine-goal win over Sharon Springs and a 6-goal win over Duanesburg. Six of the other nine wins have been by one goal.
"Every day isn't easy and that's what makes it nice," senior defender Melissa Bowley said. "Some days it is hard and we get frustrated and then the days we do work hard are rewarding."
As the wins have piled up, the Lady Cougars' goals have changed with it. A sub-.500 team that was eliminated from the sectional first round wouldn't ordinarily expect a high seed, but Canajoharie, after beating Galway on Friday night, if they win their last three games, could be seeded as high as No. 2 seed.
So, where did this resurgence come from? How did the Lady Cougars get from where they finished last year to where they are now?
Playing together during the offseason went a long way toward developing team chemistry.
"What really helped us was playing indoor league in the winter and in the summer league," Bowley said. "We've played with these girls all year long. Losing all of our seniors last year was a big change and so we had to learn how to remold together and learn where everybody was going to be and new positions. We surprised ourselves. I feel like I know where everybody is going to be on the field and that's very comforting."
Fichthorn points toward the team's coachability and willingness to try different things in order to create their success.
"Every time I talk to them about how we need to adjust them and immediately we start adjusting to it," she said. "They're just so coachable. They just want to be the best. They want to keep working hard every day at practice. They're competitive."
That's before anyone even mentions the team's soccer ability. Fichthorn said the Lady Cougars are very quick, just not as physical as other schools.
But after the loss to Maple Hill last week, they're learning to be more physical as well.
"We have to talk more and be a little more aggressive. When we get shoved, we have to shove back. We have to be faster on our feet. We learned a lot from that game, definitely."
Fichthorn was happy the Maple Hill game happened on Columbus Day when it did. She was concerned if her team played a team like that when the season began, things could have gone in a very different direction.
Two days before playing Maple Hill, they defeated Class A Albany in the tournament's first round.
"To have a couple of games where we got to see that, I think it was great," Fichthorn said. "I'm glad we had them now and not in the beginning of the season. If we played a Labor Day tournament, I think it would have knocked us down and we would have put our heads down. I think it was good timing for it."
At the beginning of the season, Canajoharie was a blip on the girls' soccer landscape. As the wins have piled up, Section II has begun to take notice. By the time they won their eighth straight game, a 3-0 win over Berne-Knox-Westerlo, even they started to think it was possible for an undefeated regular season.
Even though Maple Hill ended that dream, Fichthorn was OK with losing in early October.
"My sophomores, this is their first loss," she said. "That was a big thing, but I think, as a team, we decided we're going to learn from this. We figured out a lot of things from the first half from the second half. It's OK to lose a game as long we don't lose it in sectionals. Now is the time to lose it."
The Lady Cougars have three games remaining with a strong chance of finishing the season with only one loss as they take another trip through the WAC Central with games against St. Johnsville, Fort Plain and Sharon Springs before the sectional tournament is seeded Oct. 23.
Then they'll be in a new position, where their second loss of the season will be the one to send them home. With the success they've had so far this season, the Lady Cougars are looking forward to an extended postseason run.
"If we win, we want to win the next one," Dillenbeck said. "We just want to win. It's not all about winning, sometimes. You learn a lot from losing, but we want to go pretty far this year."