Shawn Varley didn't have a problem listing the strengths of the Lakeview High School girls soccer team.
The difficult part for Varley, now in his 10th year leading the Bulldogs, was pinpointing one main strong suit. There's the cohesion in which Lakeview plays with, as most of the team has been working together for six or seven years. There's the poise the Bulldogs display as they're loaded with upperclassmen, and then there's a defense that works in unison and knows where each other will be on the field.
Still, something else stuck out.
Tribune Chronicle / Dave Dermer
Champion’s Haley Sprague jumps while avoiding the block of LaBrae’s Emily Dugan, who is playing the ball during Monday’s game at LaBrae High School.
"I would definitely say our attacking ability," Varley concluded. "Right now, we are the leading goal-scoring team in Division II."
A player like Ali Pavlik can help make Varley's decision a little easier. The junior has already racked up 19 goals in six games this season, making her the leading scorer in all of Division II. She was an all-district performer in 2011, when she scored 30 goals in leading the Bulldogs to the second round of the Division II playoffs.
"She has it all," Varley said. "She's got the mentality that when she gets the ball, she wants to score. But what's great is that she'll pass off to a different player when she needs to. She understands when the other team is keying on her, and she creates opportunity for other players."
Pavlik is just part of what makes Lakeview (4-1-1) one of the teams to beat in the All-American Conference. Elaine Moldovan, a senior captain, is a four-year starter at goalkeeper. Fellow senior captain Alyson Zurawick is a midfielder who Varley expects to have a big year. Senior Emily Yocum anchors the defense at the sweeper position, and Abby Pavlik, a sophomore and the younger sister of Ali, is leading the team in assists as she rotates from the center and forward position.
Overall, it's a group Varley believes has a chance to make a run in the postseason this year.
"We always want to win our conference, and throughout the season, we learn as we go," he said. "The ultimate goal is to get to the district finals and win it."
STEADY AS THEY GO: Champion has long been Lakeview's top rival as well as one of the top teams in the area, and that won't change this year.
The Golden Flashes graduated just three seniors from last year's district championship team. Coach Dan Houle, now in his 21st year at Champion, said his defense will once again be suffocating. The Golden Flashes gave up just 11 goals in the regular season last year, and Houle said they could improve on that with All-Ohio sweeper Jenna Parry leading the way.
"(Parry) going to be a junior this year, so defense is obviously a strength," Houle said. "My other defender is also an experienced player, and so are my two wings. My goalkeeper is a junior and this is her second year on varsity, so she has some experience. So, defense is the strength of our team, and that's where it should be."
Parry is one of the main reasons for that. Her speed and footwork are as good as Houle has seen in years, and since she's only a junior, Houle expects her to continue to improve.
"She's very fast, has outstanding skill, but the number one thing is her speed," he said. "She can catch up to anyone, and she usually does. She was a big reason we only gave up 11 goals last year. Her and the goalkeeper. She was a sophomore and she was All-Ohio - not too many people do that."
Offensively, the Golden Flashes return their leading scorer from 2011 in Amber Walker, a junior. Megan Harkins, a senior captain, is another forward who provides scoring and consistency, Houle said. Midfielders Jordyn Skaggs, also a captain, and Emilee Lipps, will also be key contributors.
"Right now, they're jelling pretty well," Houle said. "They're playing well together. And they seem to enjoy each other's company, and that's the number one thing."
UP-AND-COMERS: LaBrae has shown signs of becoming a contender the last few years, and coach Diane Downey said the Vikings will continue that process this season.
Downey is in her sixth year leading the Vikings and said the overall improvement of the program has been strong and steady. Signs of their growth were displayed last year when LaBrae reached the sectional final for the first time in school history.
"We've just been building," she said. "We have a JV team, which really helped us, and were up to 30 girls in the program. We have a lot of girls who are working hard and want to have a successful season. And we have lot of girls who work hard in and out of season."
The Vikings will be led by a stout defense. Downey said she made some alterations to the defense, and the team is still grasping the concepts, but with several returning lettermen, she doesn't expect that learning curve to last long.
"I've sort of rearranged things, so our defenders are still trying to get a feel for each other," she said.
Some of the Vikings' top returners are Laura Hall, a senior captain who is one of LaBrae's elite defenders. Miranda Revis is a junior forward who will be counted on to supply offense, and Lauren Thomas is another junior, playing in the midfield along with freshman Miranda Miracle. Junior Nikole Rininger, sophomore Hannah Crites and junior sweeper Danielle Miracle will lead the defense.
"We have a pretty strong team," Downey said. "We talked about different goals we want to accomplish, especially after going as far as we did last year. But really, we just want to improve our program year after year."