The Northland Pines girls soccer team didn’t play last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic., but the Eagles are ready to make some noise in the Great Northern Conference (GNC) under first-year coach Rodney Sternhagen.

Sternhagen was an assistant under head coach Larry Favorite in 2019 and is ready to take over the program this spring.

“We did not have a season last year due to the closure of school and the movement to online, which cancelled all spring sports,” said Sternhagen. “We did our best to continue communication and there were individual workout challenges during the closure time.”

Pines lost six seniors that would have made a huge impact on the team in 2020, both on the field and from a leadership aspect, according to Sternhagen. 

They included Maddie Romatoski in the center midfield, Lacey Gilomen at the outside midfield position, Meaghan Lorenz and Alyssa coming off the bench as defenders, and two defending center backs Kristen Schaars and Dani Jo Anderson. The Eagles also lost its two managers, Brett Wilkens and Tanner Kiesow, to graduation.

But Sternhagen will look to a strong core of nine returnees who have experience playing for the Eagles. Those who earned letters in 2019 included McKenzie Mayo, Natalie Fluegel, Ellyn Reese, Carolyn Schaars, Samantha Haiduk, Rowan Klaver, Allison Kieffer, Emma Sima and Lauren Reese, though she may focus on equestrian this spring.

“We are training a number of goalies and our hopes are to get Mckenzie Mayo out of the keeper position as she has strong ball-handling skills and will be strong in the center midfield position,” said Sternhagen. “Allie Kieffer is another player with strong-ball-handling skills and can shoot from anywhere on the attacking half.”

The Eagles will return with several strong defenders.

“Rowan Klaver can be a stingy defender or can be put up as a striker to find the back of the net,” said Sternhagen. “Emma Sima is a physical defender and can bring depth to an area where we lost some very experienced defenders.”

Sternhagen said several other players play key roles.

“Samantha Haiduk has stepped up and picked up on the formation we ran in 2019-’20 and understands the different runs and finds a way to get open,” he said. “Natalie Fluegel and Grace Weber are strong one versus one on the outside. Ellyn Reese is another physical defender. Carolyn Schaars has a strong leg and is improving on defense every practice.”

Sternhagen said the team’s strength is a willingness to play for one another. 

“There is no ‘I’ as it is all about ‘we.’ This team is able to have fun while working hard. There will be a number of obstacles and challenges this year and I know the strength will be our ability to stay poised and play for one another,” said Sternhagen.

The coach said the challenge is that the team has not played for two years. 

“We lost our whole upper class as a result of it. So basically, the girls who were sophomores and freshmen the last time Northland Pines Lady Eagles hit the field are now our upperclassmen. So, they never had the opportunity to groom and train for the roles of leaders they are just thrust into the position,” said Sternhagen.

He said the Eagles basically have two freshmen classes entering this season as last year’s freshmen never were able to play.

“The numbers were low going into last year and we only planned on having one team. The numbers have been rising this year, but the real challenge will be getting the team up to game speed in a very short period of time,” said Sternhagen. “We have a large number of girls who have never played the sport or have not played since they were little. There is some great athleticism on the team, but there will be a great deal of trial by fire as some of these ladies will be seeing varsity time and more than half the team will be seeing their first varsity playing minutes.

Assisting Sternhagen on the soccer field this spring will be Ashley Smith.

“I am so proud of the girls who are coming out for the first time and trying this sport. It is a sport of high skill,” he said. “We are used to doing everything with our hands and in this sport, we mostly use our feet, so for these young women there is a huge learning curve, but every time they hit the pitch they have smiles on their faces and determination in their eyes.”

Sternhagen believes the Eagles can challenge for the GNC title this spring. Ashland won the GNC for the second consecutive year with a 10-0 record back in 2019. Rhine­lander finished 8-2, followed by Pines at 6-4, Medford at 5-3-2, Lakeland and Mosinee at 3-6-1, Wausau Newman at 3-7 and Antigo at 0-10.

“Like every year, we plan on contending for the title. That is our goal and if we would plan for anything less, we are selling our team, school and community short,” he said.

Pines will open the season with a nonconference game at Three Lakes Tuesday, May 4, starting at 5 p.m. The Eagles will then host Rhinelander in the GNC opener Thursday, May 6, starting at 4:30 p.m.

“I am excited about the upcoming season. These girls have waited a long time. I want them to have fun and make this their most memorable season ever. This is a very hard-working group of ladies and I hope their hard work pays off for them. We have set some very high goals and if they meet and exceed these goals, they will no doubt have the most memorable year,” said Sternhagen.