High school girls soccer: West Rowan off to competitive start
West Rowan girls soccer is much improved
West Rowan soccer
Coach: Alan Puglia (2nd year, 2-15)
Key players: MF Lejla Mehmedovic, GK Ryley Corriher, F Mackenna Clifton
Key additions: Lejla Mehmedovic (returning to high school soccer), freshman F Selma Mehmedovic, freshman MF Lauren Corriher
Key loss: MF Stacey Ketchie
2018 record: 2-15 overall, 1-9 North Piedmont Conference (6th)
Playoffs: Did not make playoffs
2019 record: 3-3-2
By Mike London
MOUNT ULLA — West Rowan counselor Alan Puglia has undertaken the challenge of trying to rebuild both Falcon soccer programs.
“It’s basically a year-round commitment to soccer,” Puglia said. “But the chance to coach the boys and the girls at West was really a big attraction for me. Growing up in Pennsylvania, boys and girls both play in the fall. In South Carolina, where I coached before I came to West, both soccer teams played in the spring. But here I’ve got the boys in the fall, the girls in the spring. It’s an opportunity to build something good.”
West’s girls have generally struggled since they won nine games and made the 3A playoffs in 2015. West’s last powerhouse team was in 2013, when special athletes such as Toni Lucente, Mariah Coleman and Rebecca Parker made the Falcons top dogs in the North Piedmont Conference.
Puglia has a strong soccer background. Besides playing in high school, he was a goalkeeper at Division III University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg where he earned his undergraduate degree. Then he headed to Duquesne for a masters degree in counseling.
He has coached soccer in Pennsylvania and Sumter, S.C. He was a head coach his final year in Sumter. The West Rowan job held major appeal for him because his wife has family in Mooresville. The Puglias relocated prior to the 2017-18 school year.
Last spring, Puglia’s first season with the girls, the Falcons played without their star, Lejla Mehmedovic, a talented center mid who has experience competing for the high-powered Charlotte Soccer Academy. She’s good enough that she received an invitation in the early months of 2018 to train with the 19-under national team for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mehmedovic was born in America, but she is of Bosnian descent.
Lejla looks complicated, but it’s not. It’s pronounced “Layla.”
Minus Mehmedovic, who commands major defensive attention from opponents, West had limited offensive firepower last spring. The only wins were an early blowout of North Rowan and a squeaker against North Piedmont Conference rival East Rowan. West was shut out frequently and lost its last 10 matches.
But Puglia, a defense-oriented coach, was able to put his system in place. Being fundamentally sound defensively was his first priority, and West achieved that. West was able to compete in a number of games. There was a scoreless struggle with NPC opponent Statesville that the Falcons lost on penalty kicks. There were two 1-0 overtime setbacks.
In West’s first eight games this season, Mehmedovic, who will play at Catawba College, poured in 10 goals, so that part of the equation has changed. Falcons. West has a chance now to win 3-2 or even 5-4.
“Lejla has great awareness and a great touch, so she’s going to be marked, with teams focusing their defense on her, especially the teams like Carson and East Rowan that know her,” Puglia said. “So we’ve got to use her abilities and the attention that she draws to develop other scoring options.”
West already has scored more goals than it did all last season. Junior forward Mackenna Clifton has found the back of the net four times.
“Mackenna is a scoring threat,” Puglia said. “She’s tough, and she’s good with the ball. A lot of high school girls shy away from contact, but she’s never afraid of anything.”
West also is getting offense from Lejla Mehmedovic’s little sister, Selma, a freshman forward who has four assists, and Chloe Patterson, a senior midfielder with four assists. Senior midfielder Rustyn Orbison has two assists.
“We’ve got seven seniors and they all play most of the time,” Puglia said.
Three seniors— Kacy Cole, Briana Saelinger and Carly Burleyson — are sound defensive roadblocks in front of goalkeeper Ryley Corriher, who averaged 12 saves last season. She’s also headed to Catawba to play for former West Rowan coach Nick Brown.
“We’ve still got a lot of our talent and a lot of our experience on the defensive side,” Puglia said. “Those three senior defenders are cornerstones.”
West also has hope for the future after this senior class graduates. Lauren Corriher is an advanced freshman midfielder.
“She’s tall, she’s smart, and she’s physical,” Puglia said.
Sophomore Karen Anaya-Castillo is being groomed as the goalkeeper to follow Ryley Corriher.
West’s best game so far was a 2-2 tie with Central Davidson, one of the top teams in the 2A Central Carolina Conference. Lejla Mehmedovic leveled that match with a late goal.
West’s best half was the first half on Wednesday when it led Northwest Cabarrus, 1-0, but the strong Trojans owned the second half.
“We played a great half, but then they showed us who they were,” Puglia said.
West starts NPC play on March 26 against East Rowan in what will be a measuring stick for the progress of both programs. Puglia says South Iredell (which made the third round of the 3A playoffs last season), Carson and North Iredell loom as the top half of the six-team NPC.
“Those are the three schools in our league that have jayvee teams, and that’s a tremendous help as far as having a strong program,” Puglia said. “That gets a lot more girls on the field and getting game experience.”
While West certainly will achieve a better won/lost record than it did in 2018, Puglia is a big-picture guy. The lessons of the soccer field, the dedication, the teamwork and the sportsmanship that it teaches, should pay dividends for West’s girls.
“That focus that we ask of them on the field should carry over to the classroom,” Puglia said. “The goal is to use soccer to build better students and better adults. And I want them to be able to look back on high school soccer with good memories. We’d like to give them the memory of being in playoff games.”