By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Things were going well for the Cedar Creek girls soccer game early in this season. The Pirates jumped out to a 5-2-2 start in September and were challenging Ocean City for the lead in the Cape-Atlantic League’s National Conference. Looking back now, head coach Danielle Hagel probably wishes she could have just ripped the October page right off the calendar and skipped to the postseason.
The Pirates struggled mightily in early October, at one point losing five straight games to fall to 5-7-2. Following back-to-back losses to Ocean City and Millville, Cedar Creek righted the ship with a 3-0 win over Middle Township. That began a four-game winning streak that put the Pirates into the South Jersey Group 2 semifinals. Their season came to a heartbreaking end with a double-overtime loss to No. 2 Cinnaminson, but Hagel said she was proud of the way her girls turned things around in the final two weeks of the season.
“We definitely struggled to put the ball in the back of the net this year, but the girls figured out how to do it at the right time. I always knew they had it in them, it was just whether or not they could find the confidence and click at the right time. We spent a lot of time in practice (late in the season) working out some of the kinks in our game. The girls stepped up, and I couldn’t be more proud of them. (The turning point) came, really, in the last week of the regular season,” Hagel said during a recent interview on 97.3 ESPN FM. “Our goal always is to win the conference, but there comes a time when you know if that’s a real thing or not. Once we realized that was out of our hands, we turned our focus to the postseason. I told the girls the regular-season games before the cutoff, let’s try to figure things out, let’s work together and figure out what we need to do. I got them to buy into that. We changed some things up, and those last couple of games I really saw them turn things around and that’s when I said, ‘we’re maybe going to do something this postseason.’”
Cedar Creek entered the sectional tournament as the No. 6 seed and beat Middle Township — for the third time this season — 5-0 in the opening round before going on the road to knock off No. 3 Manchester, 2-0. That put the Pirates just one win away from playing for a South Jersey championship, before Cinnaminson stopped their postseason run.
Hagel said she did everything she could think of to get her team out of its midseason funk. She met with each player individually, asked them what they needed to be successful. Sometimes there is no easy answer as to why a high school team struggles. So, Hagel decided to stop pushing so hard and just let the girls have fun playing soccer.
“I haven’t been the head coach for very long, just three years, but I’ve learned that you kind of can’t keep pushing if they are not performing. You have to look at the girls in front of you and figure out what they need. They are an amazing group of girls, so I kind of took my foot off the gas, took off the pressure and encouraged them to relax, but also to never give up and never stop working. I had individual conversations with each of them, and they responded so well. I don’t have a lot of bench players, so they get tired, and I know that,” she said. “I think a lot of coaches, me included, sometimes forget that they are kids. You have to remember that they are teenagers and they have a lot going on in their lives. This is supposed to be fun, and the moment it becomes not fun for them, you have to change what you are doing and make it fun again.”
She also said she leaned on assistant coach Rebecca Sartorio, a former star at Absegami, for support all season long.
“I always reflect on my coaching, and I have an amazing assistant who used to play at Absegami and went on to play in college at Albright. She’s really knowledgeable and I bounce ideas off her all the time,” Hagel said. “You have to constantly reflect on yourself as a coach if you want to get better.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays