There were many unknowns in preseason camp for the Montour girls' soccer team.
In her seven years at Montour, this was the youngest team coach Natasha Dirda ever brought into a season. Only one senior and two juniors were listed in the starting lineup and on top of that the Spartans were preparing to move down from Class AAA to Class AA.
But there was one thing Dirda and her team knew on the first day of camp -- the postseason was the goal.
After back-to-back playoff appearances in 2008 and '09, the Spartans finished in fourth and fifth in Section 5-AAA the past two years, missing the playoffs.
"Being a young team, the playoffs were the goal we set for ourselves," Dirda said. "Double-A was brand new for us, and nobody had any idea what to expect, but from the first day of preseason we said 'Let's set our goal on the playoffs and hopefully we reach it.'"
Those playoff aspirations were in doubt when the Spartans dropped a pair of section contests to Quaker Valley and Moon. The losses dropped the team to 5-3 in the section with a crucial game looming last Saturday against South Fayette, a perennial postseason contender. Montour (8-6, 7-3) completed the season sweep of South Fayette with a 3-1 win on homecoming.
"That was an important win for us," Dirda said. "The girls definitely came out ready to go and they came out to win that game."
The win firmly entrenched Montour as a third-place team in Section 5-AA behind Moon Area (9-0) and Quaker Valley (8-1) and ahead of Keystone Oaks (4-4-1), West Allegheny (4-5-1) and South Fayette (4-5).
Montour's season started with a challenging slate of games as Dirda scheduled non-section contests against Central Valley and Class AAA programs Chartiers Valley and Upper St. Clair. The Spartans lost all three games plus its section opener to Moon to start the season 0-4.
"We like to have competitive non-section games to prepare them," Dirda said. "It was a tough start for a very young team. Mentality-wise, we kept them chugging along and moving in the right direction. When section play started, things started to click."
Things certainly did start to click for the Spartans. After the 0-4 start it won six consecutive games by a combined score of 30-2.
The Spartans have had their toughest time against Moon, a former section rival who moved down from Class AAA with them this season. Moon is the top-ranked team in Class AA. The Tigers blasted Montour twice, 10-1 and 8-0, but Dirda and her team relish playing Moon twice a season.
"It is a good rivalry," Dirda said. "Moon is obviously a phenomenal soccer program and that is a good thing for us, the next-door neighbors. We have something to fight for and aspire to. We always get up for a big game against them. We were glad they made the move with us."
Dirda describes senior center midfielder Kara Jones as the glue that holds the midfield together. Jones is a returning starter as is sophomore forward Jane Schleicher who leads the team with 20 goals. She scored 14 last season as a freshman.
"[Schleicher] is a very crafty player," Dirda said. "She is definitely coming into her own and putting her name out there. She is a very strong player."
The Montour defense that has shut out four opponents this season is led by sophomore goalie Aryana Jones, the younger sister of Tara. The younger Jones started in net last season as a freshman. Sophomore Victoria Kocsuta is one of the most versatile players on the field. She can play anywhere from center back to midfield to forward.
Montour was scheduled to play at West Allegheny on Wednesday and at home against Carrick tonight in a pair of crucial section contests. The Spartans will close out their regular season by playing host to Keystone Oaks Monday and visiting Quaker Valley Wednesday.
"We have some big section battles coming up," Dirda said.