Pictured: Junior Melina Ford was credited with eight shutouts in Mercy’s 12 matches last fall. She is among the top keepers in the SCC this season. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri

MIDDLETOWN – Mercy’s soccer program anticipates picking up where it left off after winning 11 of 12 matches and producing three all-conference players from the shortened 2020 high school season.

The Tigers have another well-rounded roster, which includes a budding star in sophomore center-forward Kate Donlan, senior captain Jess Eaton anchoring a promising back line, and perhaps the top goalkeeper in the Southern Connecticut Conference in junior Melina Ford.

Coach Marcus Harley, now in his 12th season as head coach and 21st with the program, also is eager to see Megan Menard in uniform before the end of September. The sophomore, thought of by Harley as “probably the best player on the field,” is recovering from a hip injury.

“We have 14 players with Megan, and we’re looking to continue the run with those 14 and whatever freshmen can help us with whatever minutes we can give them,” said Harley, whose Tigers begin the season Thursday in Milford against Lauralton Hall.

“The girls all believe that we’re good and we’re going to be good,” Harley said. “They just want to get the games started.”

The Tigers graduated top players Katie Menard, Grace Riegler and Kaila Lujambio. Their efforts were instrumental during a 9-1 regular season and two more wins, the last a 1-0 decision over Cheshire that gave the squad its SCC “division title.”

The Tigers are eager to see what Kate Donlan can do on the field this fall after her strong freshman turn in 2020. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

The confidence coming from this year’s group starts with Ford, who was credited with eight shutouts as a sophomore.

“Melina was a big factor for us even as a freshman,” said Harley. “We had a good group of seniors that year (and a 14-4-3 record), so she didn’t get the spotlight. Last year she had the spotlight and this year she should get the spotlight. She’s a big part of us.”

Opponents scored just four times last year on Ford, whose size, footwork and anticipation present a serious challenge for all types of scoring-minded attackers.

“Lots of teams find it difficult to score on Melina,” Harley said. “The simple goals that would get by others are just not getting by her. And in this sport, even our own players all tend to just kick the ball within the radius of the goalkeeper, so it’s easy for them to get that save. Some don’t make that save, but Melina is making those saves. And it makes all the difference.”

Ford believes the Tigers will be “more of a defensive team this year.”

“We have a lot of ability to push the ball forward,” she added, “but for us to have a good offense, we have to play good defense.”

Donlan, who led the Tigers in goals as a freshman, will be at the fore of the attack along with Menard when she’s healthy enough to play. Ford and Eaton are two of Donlan’s biggest fans.

“You forget she’s just a sophomore,” Eaton said.

“Kate has better foot skills this year and knows how to move the ball,” said Ford.

In addition to Donlan and Menard, the Tigers expect to have sophomore Marie Kane creating within the attack for a full season. Kane, a speedster who won the Class M championship in the 200 meters last spring, was injured for part of her freshman soccer season.

“She’s a big part of this (at) forward,” said Harley. “She’s a super-fast girl who made a difference in the postseason last year. She caused us to score just with her speed. We’re trying to score goals and trying to get the players in the habit right now of playing high pressure, where our forwards are playing defense up there and winning the ball and just scoring goals.”

Elsewhere on the field, returning starters Eaton, defensive mid Lauren Kohs and cousin/sweeper Avery Kohs will figure in whatever success Mercy has this year. Meanwhile, senior Haley Morales is vying for a starting role, and sophomores Jules Yuris and Megan Swan will step in and play “significant” minutes, Harley said.

Eaton has embraced her responsibilities as the team’s leader.

“She’s like a mother to the girls. She will talk to them and try to motivate them,” Harley said. “Jess is a hard worker and the other players see that on the field. She’s not quiet. They’ll know when she’s not happy with how things are going.”

The Tigers play their first home games on the artificial surface of Xavier’s Larry McHugh Field — on Sept. 14 against Amity and Sept. 17, a Friday night, against West Haven.

“We have the potential to be a really good team,” said Ford. “We’ll be back in our regular division (the Quinnipiac). I feel like there are high expectations.”

After experiencing a delay in the start to last season and having about half the games, Harley is just glad there is no guesswork involved with what will happen next. That is, at least at this moment.

“Now we’ve come in, we got ready in the preseason and we’re looking toward November 1 when the playoffs start,” he said. “Our goal is to qualify for states. Our baseline is six wins for that, and we know we’re going to win more than that. All of our thinking is for the postseason. Here, it’s the postseason or nothing.”

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