Youth turns into experience for St. Mary’s this season

Gaby Diaz-Martinez, center, was a big part of the Spartans young core last season. (Item file photo)

LYNN– The St. Mary’s girls soccer team is in good shape.

The Spartans relied on youth last year, with plenty of sophomores and freshmen getting tons of minutes, many cracking the starting lineup. They gained valuable playoff experience as well, as St. Mary’s went to the Division 4 North final for the second straight year.

Now those underclassmen are a year older with another season of experience under their belts. While the Spartans did lose four seniors — including goalie Emily Stephenson and starting defenders Casey Fraher and Nikki Bendicksen — St. Mary’s is looking strong throughout the field.

“Those girls gained a lot of experience,” Spartans coach Jim Foley said. “Maybe a little too much at times. But some of them were were thrown in the fire right off the bat.”

Among those players was forward Kayla Demers, now a sophomore, who provided some offensive firepower for St. Mary’s last season. Midfielders Gaby Diaz-Martinez, Jenna Foley, Emily Egan and Sherly Feliz also generated scoring, and defensemen Morgan Mackey, Joslyn Deschenes and Jill Gentile fit seamlessly with Fraher and Bendicksen, who led the defense on the field.

But the player who will likely make the biggest difference for St. Mary’s this season is Mia Nikolakopoulos. The midfielder missed her entire junior season after tearing her ACL, and Foley feels that the regular season (in which the Spartans finished 9-9) would have gone a bit differently had Nikolakopoulos been on the field.

“Losing Mia hurt us,” Foley said. “She started her freshman year. She’s a great leader on and off the field. Getting her back is like having a transfer or a new player coming in. That will help us, it’s a huge plus.”

Nikolakopoulos, a captain along with fellow senior, Caitlyn Foley, a defender, is itching to get back on the field, according to Foley.

“We have to temper her a little bit, she’s champing at the bit,” Foley said. “She saw some things last year that we need to do better, and it frustrated her, not being able to play. So we have to turn her down a notch sometimes. She’s healthy but sometimes she tries to do too much. She’s a competitor.”

The Spartans will have a couple of holes to fill, however. Fraher and Bendicksen held down the defense and “never came off the field,” said Foley. Fortunately, the Spartans have players ready to step into those roles.

The net, however, is up for grabs. Stephenson received many accolades during her time in goal for St. Mary’s, and it will be tough to replace her.

“They’re big shoes to fill,” Foley said. “There’s not a lot of depth there.”

But otherwise, the Spartans are in good shape.

“Offensively, we possess the ball well, have some firepower, have some goal scorers. Midfield is strong, and so is the defense,” Foley said. “We have good skill and speed and can create some problems for teams.”

The past two years, the Spartans have finished around .500 during the regular season, but kicked things into another gear once the postseason rolls around. In 2015, the Spartans went all the way to the Division 4 state semifinals, while last year, they reached the North final before falling to a tough Amesbury team, 4-0.

Part of the reason the regular season tends to have its ups and downs is simply because St. Mary’s plays in one of the toughest leagues around: the Catholic Central League.

“We’re very battle-tested, playing in one of the best leagues, for when the tournament rolls around,” Foley said. “There are no nights off in our league. It’s a battle every night. There are no games where you can rest people. That’s something I want to try and work on this year, getting more wins in the league. We can’t just wait for the tournament to kick it up a notch.”

Before the Spartans dive into league play, there’s the Lynn City Tournament, which Foley looks forward to every year.
“It’s always fun,” he said. “It’s great to be a part of it. The kids know each other, and you have some great rivalries.”

The Spartans will go into the season with a brand-new coaching staff, save for Foley. Joining him on the sidelines will be new assistant coach Sam Charest, who comes over from Fenwick. The rest of the staff is comprised of four former Spartans: sisters Molly and Maggie Carey, both former St. Mary’s and later Emmanuel College players, Zuzu Haefner and Taylor Cash.

“It’s cool when you have them play for you, and then they contact you to come back and help out,” Foley said. “It’s nice when you get some former players. It’s nice to see them grow.”

The Spartans take on English in the Lynn City Tournament on Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. at Manning Field.

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