In 10 years as Upper St. Clair's girls soccer coach, only three freshmen ever earned a starting spot for Wayne Capra.
Capra, who has begun his eighth season at South Fayette, opened this campaign with five freshmen in the starting lineup. Not only is nearly half the Lions lineup made up of freshmen, but Capra will rely on three others off the bench this season.
The young Lions team passed their first set of tests in a kickoff tournament which they hosted this past weekend. South Fayette blanked Waynesburg Central, 4-0, and went to double-overtime against Belle Vernon Area before losing, 2-1, on a goal with fewer than 90 seconds remaining.
"We are heavily laden with freshmen but they are good freshmen," Capra said. "At Upper St. Clair freshmen rarely made the varsity roster, let alone started."
Despite its youth South Fayette, ranked No. 4 in WPIAL Class AA in the preseason, is still considered a contender in large part because of its returning all-section players, forward Liana Leja and junior defender Micaela Mitchell.
"Without question we are going to lean on them a lot until these younger girls get seasoned," Capra said.
Leja is the all-time leading scorer in program history. She scored the first three goals of the game in South Fayette's victory against Waynesburg Central. Mitchell will anchor a defense that features three freshmen starters playing in front of a freshman goalie.
"We are young but we are going to scare a lot of people," Capra said. "They look at us as being young but we still have Micaela, one of the top defenders in the WPIAL, and Liana. With those two book ends, we can control everything in the middle and then it's up to me not to screw it up."
The other returning starters along with Leja and Mitchell are sophomore midfielder Natalie Hilton and the Byham sisters, senior forward Megan and sophomore midfielder Jen. Megan Byham scored a goal in the loss to Belle Vernon.
The freshmen starters are stopper Maggie Pine, marking backs Tori Valachovic, midfielders Carli Chiatto and Hannah Kenawell and goalie Natalie Caraway. Pine scored her first career goal in the season-opening win against Waynesburg Central.
"You don't like to have that many freshmen on the field [to begin with], but when you have them in the back, you are scratching your head," Capra said. "It is not really what I would have envisioned."
Belle Vernon started one sophomore against South Fayette and the rest of the starters were juniors or seniors.
"I was a little concerned when we knew we were going to play them," Capra said. "They are a veteran team. Going into the game, I didn't know what to expect. After the game I knew we were going to be fine this year."
Other freshmen who are expected to contribute include defender Meghan Hoerger, forward Brianna Reese and midfielder Ellese White.
With Mitchell anchoring the defense and Leja the target up top at forward, sophomore Gabi Guadagnino and junior Chelsea Hughes anchor the midfield.
South Fayette makes the move from Section 4-AA to Section 5-AA this season. Last season the Lions finished 9-4-1 in the section behind South Park and Belle Vernon. This year South Fayette's biggest competition in the section will likely come from Quaker Valley and Moon Area, which moved down from Class AAA.
South Fayette advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals last season, snapping a string of three consecutive first-round exits.
"We have a young team, but we have a good crop," Capra said. "In the years to come, look out."
South Fayette was scheduled to open section play on Wednesday at Quaker Valley. It will play host to Chartiers Valley today in a non-section game before resuming Section 5-AA action on Monday at home against Montour.