BOYLSTON - Last year, the Tahanto Regional High School girls soccer team cruised through an undefeated regular season at 14-0-4 in coach John Ducat’s 26th and final season at the helm.
A year later, Dan Ashman took over as head coach for the Stags and expectations were low after the team graduated over 10 seniors.
So low, in fact, that Ashman even received an email from a player asking if he really wanted to start over fresh with this group because the season was going to be “a learning experience.”
“People will talk about that class of 2019 for a really long time,” Ashman said of last year’s club. “The expectation was that Tahanto was going to take a big step back.”
Instead, with only three seniors, the Stags currently stand at 14-1-1 overall and 9-0 in the Midland-Wachusett League E Division.
Tahanto has put in extra effort and toughness to make sure its young squad didn’t take any steps back from last year. If anything, they’ve taken steps forward, looking to be the first Tahanto girls soccer team to win 16 regular season games.
“The thing I love about these girls, they’re nice kids, but they have a chip on their shoulder,” Ashman said. “They’re not overconfident, despite winning 14 of 16. They’re still pretty hungry.”
So how did such a young team that only had two starters return from last year have such a successful season?
It all started before the season even began.
“We scrimmaged Uxbridge, who was the defending district champion,” Ashman said. “I scheduled them to see how good you have to be to win a district championship.”
Uxbridge dominated Tahanto and won 5-0. The Stags only had one opportunity to score.
“That was the day we said ‘here’s what we have to do if we want to be a good team’ and all the mistakes we made that day, we’ve done a pretty good job of eliminating those,” Ashman said.
Tahanto started the season 11-0 before a 1-1 tie against Littleton on Oct. 4.
Ashman’s captains - Jocelyn Sioui, Gaby Villani and Jamie Gross - have led the way for Tahanto, all stepping up to the challenge of leading a young team.
Villani has 11 goals and is one of Ashman’s best athletes, as he has coached her as the track and cross country coach for the last 5 seasons.
Sioui is a midfielder, who didn’t even think she would make the team, but has turned out to be one of the team’s best players.
Ashman said that Gross has improved more throughout the season than any other player on the team.
The Stags are balanced on both sides of the ball, scoring 70 goals and only allowing 16 through 16 games.
Standouts on offense are freshman Jess Forbes, who has scored 20 goals, and sophomore Jordan Money, who is tied for the team lead of nine assists.
On defense, junior Jenny McGrath leads the way and “is basically the one kid who never comes off the field” according to Ashman. She was a league all-star last year.
Outside backs Hailey and Carly Choquette are having strong seasons and freshman Autumn Bella, who is new to the school, has scored several goals and also has nine assists.
In goal, freshman Lauren Wattu has had a great year, including five shutouts.
“In my opinion, she’s the best goalie in the league,” Ashman said.
The coach really believes that Tahanto’s effort and toughness is the real reason the team has had so much success.
“If you’re the most skilled or the best player, that’s fine, but if you’re physically tough and mentally tough, that’s what we can control,” he said.
The first blemish finally came against Whitinsville Christian last week in a 3-1 loss. Ashman said they made many errors and he’s hoping that loss can be a turning point.
“We’ve played a couple games where we’ve been bad in the first half and good enough in the second half to make up for it, but that didn’t happen Friday,” he said. “Hopefully we can learn that lesson and not have that happen to us in the next couple games and the district games.”
Each of the last two seasons, the Stags have had 14-win seasons before falling in the district quarterfinals and semifinals. Ashman is hoping this is the year the program can push further.
“When I was in high school, I played in the state semis a couple times and lost to the eventual state champ every time,” Ashman said. “I tell the kids that 20 years later, I still think about it constantly, still dream about it.
“You get limited shots to accomplish that and I would love for this year’s team to do it,” he said.
So about that email?
“That’s the best part of this whole thing. Not only have we not taken that step back, but we are a solid team,” Ashman said. “We’ve got a bunch of young kids who are finally getting a shot to play on varsity.”
Maybe that “learning experience” will turn into the best girls soccer team that Tahanto has ever seen.