DIX HILLS, New York, September 11
BY: Andrew Wroblewski
The game of soccer can be decided in just a heartbeat.
Matthew Mayo, head coach of the Half Hollow Hills High School East girls varsity soccer team, and his squad have learned that the hard way over the last two seasons when the Thunderbirds often fell in closely contested games. On Saturday, Hills East continued that trend and fell to Kings Park 2-0 on two late goals that put the Thunderbirds’ first non-league matchup of the season out of reach.
“It was a brutal morning… With the humidity, the girls were dying out there,” Mayo, fifth-year head coach of the Thunderbirds, said. “The first 75 percent of the game was an even match, but they got two quick goals at the end.”
Despite the loss, though, Mayo remained positive while addressing a couple of points of emphasis that must be addressed by the team moving forward.
First, the coach said, the Thunderbirds were noticeably tired and, as a team, must alleviate that moving forward in the season.
“It’s nothing insurmountable,” he said. “I don’t think they’re used to playing in the heat… And it definitely affected us more than them… [But] conditioning is always a focus.”
Second, he added, set pieces – which have chronically given Hills East trouble – once again came back to haunt the Thunderbirds as the Kingsmen scored one of their two goals on a corner kick.
“In the past two seasons, most of our games were lost by one goal… We’ll dominate a team and then lose on a corner kick; it’s very frustrating,” Mayo, whose team failed to make the playoffs the last two seasons, said. “We’ve played so many close games… Half of the goals we’ve given up have come on corner kicks or free kicks, so another focus is to prevent that from happening.”
But, with plans to fix these weaknesses rolling out, Mayo and the girls are extremely positive heading into the season.
The Thunderbirds, built around a core of upperclassman – with 10 seniors and six juniors – are finally healthy and seem poised to make noise in League II this season.
One of those seniors, Christina Bellero, is coming off an All-County season where she led her team in scoring and, with her speed and tenacity to stay on the ball, established herself as a key component in a Thunderbirds’ offense hoping to score more goals.
“Now that she’s been in the league for four seasons, teams know who she is and typically double team her, but she’s absolutely up to the challenge,” Mayo said of his senior star. “One-versus-one she can beat defenders… She’s a deadly player.”
At the opposite end of the field, Hills East has junior goalkeeper Mackenzie Kagan and senior center back Lauren Keschner prepped to hold down the fort.
Kagan, entering her second season in net with the Thunderbirds, is a “strong keeper” and a “huge help,” Mayo said.
Keschner, an All-League player last season, solidifies the defense for Hills East and acts as the “director,” helping her teammates get into the right position – when she isn’t busy clearing the ball out herself.
With these pieces, Mayo is hopeful the Thunderbirds can make a run in a tough League II – this year made up of powerhouse schools like the 2013 Long Island Class AA runner-up, Northport.
“League II is tough… [But] we’re trying to make the playoffs,” said Mayo, adding that he believes his seniors will serve as mentors to the four underclassman rostered by the Thunderbirds this year. “I think we have a skilled team with our seniors and a promising group of young players… They believe we can make it to the playoffs.”
Hills East was once again in action on Tuesday when the team traveled to Centereach, but the game occurred after press time on Monday and the team once again fell 2-0.
Today, the Thunderbirds open up League II play at home against Lindenhurst at 4 p.m.
Originally published: Long Islander News: Half Hollow Hills (Thursday, September 11, 2014; A24)