Story and photos by Kurt Johnson
They come at you in waves, and that’s by design. When you face off against the Lone Peak High girls soccer team, you never know where the danger is going to come from, but you do know it’s coming.
During the course of their run through a 16-0 regular season, the Knights received goals from 17 different players. Because their leading scorer, Cameron Tucker, has just 11 goals, the individual statistics don’t scream that this team as an offensive juggernaut, at least not until you take a closer look.
Lone Peak certainly is dominating in its defensive third, having allowed just five goals in those 16 contests, with a dozen shutouts. But don’t let that fool you into thinking this is just a defensive team. The key word in Alpine is balance.
“It’s a team. I’d have to say across the board, it’s a team,” said Lone Peak head coach Heather Dahl. “I don’t think we could do it without our defense, but if you look at the number of goals we’re putting in at the same time (as the shutouts), that we’re scoring, you have to say it’s a team. We have 16 girls scoring goals from all positions.”
Worrying about trying to find ways to solve senior goalkeeper Cassidy Smith and the defenders in front of her can occupy a lot of time and energy, but while you’re doing that, those 17 players will be found at your end of the pitch, where they pounded the back of the net with 69 goals in those 16 games.
“We’re very good at our sneak attacks,” Smith said. “We can go from passing and keeping it under control to all the sudden fast movement and going to goal. We have a lot of strength up top, so if we can get a breakaway, they’re in trouble. It’s a good experience to not have to lean on one player (to score), because if one player has a bad game, it kinds of messes up the whole team. We know that if one player is off one game, it’s okay, we’ve got 15 others.”
It’s that movement and passing that makes this Lone Peak team particularly dangerous. The Knights play a game that just seems to flow, at least when they stay on point. Player movement is critical for Lone Peak, and the Knights do a good job of letting the ball do the work with that crisp, effective passing game.
“We have to play our game,” said midfielder TJ McKendrick. “We can’t slip into other players’ games, like we have to play our possession game and not boot ball. As long as we do that, we do well. Sometimes it’s difficult because we get caught up and just want to kick it back but once we settle down, we do really well.”
Lone Peak transitions well from defense to offense in part because its players all understand their roles and responsibilities. It’s hard to tell exactly what formation the Knights are running, and Dahl likes it that way.
“It’s very different,” Dahl said. “At times it looks like three, at times it looks like four and at times it looks like five (in the back). They know their roles. It was something that was created last year with this group so this is their second year in it and they’ve grabbed onto it. It was created strictly for this talent and these girls and them learning that they are responsible for certain areas on the field and taking responsibility for that.”
Depth of Talent
Building towards a team that had the potential to run through an undefeated season while playing in the stout Region 4 and then taking a serious run at the state title has been a process for Dahl. This year’s Knights are in a good position to get there because they are deep in talent at every position.
“Depth, I think, is the biggest factor with this team, as opposed to the last couple of years,” Dahl said. “It’s something I’ve been working for since I came here, in the selection of picking these kids and finding that group that could mesh and work together at a high intensity that we require in practice and willing to kind of push themselves a little bit and to push each other.”
The coach is not hesitant to substitute and use that depth to provide different looks and give her players a chance to stay fresh.
“We have really strong players in each position and when we sub out, the whole thing never changes because we’re always playing up to pace,” said central defender Leesa Stowe. “I feel like when we lose a ball, we’re all really good at getting back and recovering the ball and moving it up the field quickly.”
“In past years, it hasn’t always been this way, but coming off of the bench, the pace of the game never changes,” said forward Natalie Lewis. “It’s super nice because you don’t have as much pressure on you when you’re going onto the field, you’re not the only player whose going to make a difference because the other players are so good and every single player makes a difference when they’re on the field. I think it gives everyone confidence, just knowing we’re all good players.”
Consistency in the Back
With all of the substituting, there are two players who never leave the field for Lone Peak – Smith in goal, and Stowe as the anchor of that defensive group. For all of their ability to score goals from multiple players and all positions, the Knights are extremely difficult to beat in large part because it is all but impossible to get the ball into the net against that defense.
“We made a goal as a defense for shutouts, for 10 shutouts,” Smith said. “That was definitely a team effort and we couldn’t have done it without our defense. It takes a lot of a team effort for us. We’re really built on the team. It even takes the people sitting on the bench getting up and keeping energy up. We play better when we’ve got energy. When we get complacent is when we make mistakes. That always comes as a team and that’s what we’re good at is always supporting each other.”
At Lone Peak, that defensive effort starts at the top and continues back through the midfield as everyone battles for every possession. To play a schedule that includes some of the state’s top scorers including Hailey Skolmoski of Riverton and Morgan Quarnberg of Pleasant Grove, and allow just five goals, you have to get defensive efforts from all over the place and that effort and energy starts with Smith and Stowe.
“I think we’re all supporting each other, but it definitely (starts with) Cassidy Smith,” Lewis said. “She gets the team going in the back, she can see the whole field and you can hear her yelling. The good thing is that it’s always positive. And also, I think, Leesa Stowe. Even though she’s not super loud in the back, she’s just always so consistent and you can always trust her. I want to be that player for other girls.”
So it starts with the two dynamic players in the back, but if Lone Peak is able to run the table and get the championship this season, it will be because there are so many leaders on this team.
“I look for people who step up every game,” McKendrick said. “That can be anybody on the team at any given time. We’ve got tons of leadership on our team, there’s people that can step up and get it done and that’s who I look to. It’s different every game.”
For the Knights, the last three seasons have ended with playoff losses to Viewmont. Twice, including last season, those losses came in the state semifinals. Lone Peak has worked hard to make this the season that they break through, and the result was an undefeated regular season. Dahl credits much of that to her team’s work ethic.
“I think that’s the little changing factor,” she said. “You come out to a practice and you watch them go. They’ve learned that when they step our here, their focus is here. I’m not going to keep them long, but we’re going to work extensively hard during that time.”
The players feel that being undefeated has added to the intensity of their preparation and to the way they attack each contest.
“It (being undefeated) gets us excited, but it also has us wanting to defend that zero even more,” Smith said. “It’s nerve-wracking but it makes us want to work even harder to not lose that. We’re always working hard, whether it’s in practice or a game. We don’t let down. That’s what’s benefitted us the most. Even after having a successful season like we’ve had so far, we’re still working hard. We’ve got that goal of state in our mind, and we don’t want to let down.”
That does not change the fact that the expectations are there, and with those expectations comes some pressure to perform. The end result to the season may well depend on how this group responds to that pressure.
“I feel like we have a target on our back because everyone wants to beat us,” Stowe said. “I think we are good at keeping our head in the game and staying focused and not letting that get to us.”
“Kids at school are just like ‘you guys are going to win state,'” Lewis said. “It’s scary, because we have such a good record and so people expect that, but we are not the only good team in Utah. We have really good competition, our region’s hard, it’s just really good competition, so even though we’re expected to win, we’re going to have to work super hard, but I know we can.”
If her team plays the game it’s way, Dahl is confident everything is in place for a deep tournament run. One key, she says, is to avoid that one error.
“We have to not make a mistake in the state tournament,” Dahl said. “In each game we’ve lost on our own mistake, on an error of our part where we’ve turned the ball over in a dangerous area that we shouldn’t have done. That’s going to be the key. We were in every one of those games and dominating at times.”
Tough region battles down the stretch against Riverton and American Fork, two teams Lone Peak may see again before this is all over, have certainly made it clear that winning a state title is not going to be easy, but that would make it all the more meaningful.