When Rod Harris opened his first preseason training camp 12 months back, one of the items at or near the top of his to-do list was impressing upon his soccer-playing girls the importance of building chemistry and cohesion — while performing together.

In other words, cementing unbreakable bonds while creating a family unit.

Well, something worked as Harris’ defense-minded Black Panthers pieced together a nifty 11-8-1 record — 6-6 in Division I of the Heartland Conference — that propelled them as far as the semifinal round of the District 4 Class 2A tournament.

Yet even though last season ended in disappointing fashion, an enthusiastic group of Black Panthers was ready to go early Monday morning when Harris welcomed back just about everybody from last year’s club for the first of two Day 1 sessions.

“We’ve got to continue to build off of what we built last year,” said Harris, who had 35 girls on hand for Day 1 after rostering 32 players a season ago. “And that is, ‘We are a family, we are united as one. There’s no separation, there’s no drama, there’s no JV and varsity, it is Milton girls’ soccer, no matter how many players show up.”

An intriguing crop of freshmen also was on hand for a two-hour morning session featuring all sorts of skill work. And they were back late in the afternoon for another training period, two hours dedicated to fitness and conditioning work.

“We want to continue to build that family and understand that we made some noise last year and we opened a bunch of peoples’ eyes,” Harris added. “So we have to understand how to handle that pressure coming at us. No one’s going to overlook us.”

Having key personnel such as forward Leah Bergey, midfielder Taylor Snyder, midfielder Leah Walter, center back Janae Bergey, flank defender Katie Weaver and keeper Kamryn Snyder back and ready to take another step forward is why Harris is optimistic his club will respond positively. Freshmen Ryen Roush and Mo Reiner already are vying for PT.

Snyder pitched 10 shutouts last season while making 260 saves.

Since Milton has a rugged defensive unit in place, he’s hoping his experienced Black Panthers can take the next step and perk up the attack consistently. It’s all part of an on-going process.

“We had a phenomenal first practice this morning,” Harris admitted. “We just have a different atmosphere and a different mindset this year. It’s very exciting for me as a coach, because I had to work very hard last year to change the culture.”

At Selinsgrove, where veteran soccer skipper Cheryl Underhill welcomed 29 players for the opening day of practice, returning to the District 4 Class AAA throne and reclaiming the Heartland Conference’s Division I title are the objectives.

And with six starters returning from a Seals group (11-8 overall, 8-4 HAC-I) that last season reached the District 4 semifinals, Underhill’s latest edition has lots of experience available since a number of others logged playing time coming off the bench.

“It’s an exciting group,” Underhill said of a roster featuring just three seniors.

Nonetheless, having a defensive backfield return intact is a mighty, mighty big plus for the Seals. Particularly since backs Annalise Bond, Lizzy Diehl, Grace Long and Isabelle Snyder, and goalkeeper Alivia Ravy are multi-year regulars.

“It went well,” admitted Underhill, whose Seals will entertain Milton, Lewisburg and Warrior Run on Saturday for a trio of 40-minute scrimmages. “The girls were excited. It was a warm day, but they worked hard and they have been working in the offseason.

“Good Day 1. Looking forward to Day 2.”

Also pleased with his program’s initial training day was Danville boys’ soccer coach Brian Dressler, who had 31 players on hand after working last season with a 23-man unit.

“They were excited, until it got really warm this afternoon,” said Dressler, who is beginning his 10th season in charge. “The one huge advantage I have over last year is there wasn’t a lot of competition for spots. There wasn’t a lot of numbers.

“You need that healthy competition to push a team.”

Since three-year starter Braeden Eckard is now at Penn College, Dressler’s prime preseason focus is locating a quality goalkeeper. Danville (9-8-1 overall, 6-5-1 in HAC-I) also is trying to spark an attack that struggled to consistently find finishes.

With senior attacking midfielder Nick Cera still working centrally, Dressler’s Ironmen have a catalyst in place. Meanwhile, senior center back Blake Nizinski will try to help Danville’s new keeper get comfortable quickly with his surroundings.

Overall, the Ironmen return eight starters and 12 of their top 14 field players from a team that reached the District 4 Class AA quarterfinals. Dressler also is pleased to add a group of quality freshmen for the second consecutive season.

Stepping back into the varsity field hockey scene for the first time since her earlier two-year stint at Shikellamy ended in 2001, Tammy Lahr greeted 25 players for the first day of workouts, a number that had her really, really upbeat.

“There’s so many girls this year,” said Lahr of a Shikellamy program that struggled with numbers last season. “Which is really nice.”

Among the Braves’ key returnees — some have already undergone positional changes — are defenders Morgan Heiser and Hailey Arsenyevictz, midfielder Olivia Cimino, and forwards Luxi Walz and Julia Boyle.

Lahr, who coached Shik’s seventh and eighth grade team in the spring, welcomed eight freshmen that have already suited up and played for her.

The Braves (8-11 overall in 2018, 2-6 in HAC-I) spent the morning conditioning, then broke out the hockey sticks for a series of afternoon drills.

“We were hoping to just basically get the girls back into the game, get their sticks in their hands and get them to start working on their skills,” added Lahr, who piloted the Braves to a District 4 title in 2001. “We wanted to show them all of the possibilities and just remind them that they’re good.

“We’re just driving home fundamentals right now.”

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