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High school soccer: West was building around its only senior

West Rowan girls soccer

Coach: Alan Puglia (3rd year, 10-23-2)

West in the last 5 years: 25-65-3

2019 record: 8-8-2

2020 record: 2-3

Senior: MacKenna Clifton

MOUNT ULLA — MacKenna Clifton is West Rowan soccer’s only senior, but she’s a nice person to have around.

Clifton not only scored 11 goals as a junior, she’s a unifying presence and a leadership presence, someone for younger teammates to look up to.

She’s West’s homecoming queen and the Future Farmers of America president, not just for West Rowan, but for the region. She’s won awards for public speaking and recently was selected as a North Carolina Teaching Fellow. She’s headed to N.C. State in the fall.

“She’s super-involved in the school and she’s worked very hard for everything that she’s gotten,” West coach Alan Puglia said. “No one’s given her any of those things.”

West lost a monumental player from last season. Rowan County Player of the Year Lejla Mehmedovic, now at Catawba, helped lift West to 8-8-2 in 2019 after struggling seasons of 1-17 (2017) and 2-15 (2018).

Mehmedovic’s graduation combined with the loss of several experienced defensive anchors guaranteed a rebuilding season for the young Falcons, but Puglia planned to avoid falling back to the bottom, and Clifton gave him someone to rebuild around.

“Lejla created a lot of chances for teammates, and MacKenna took advantage of those opportunities and scored goals,” Puglia said. “It was going to be interesting this season to see how MacKenna adjusted to being the focus of other team’s defenses. We knew it was going to be harder for her, but she’s the kind of person who can handle it without getting frustrated.”

Clifton was shut out in West’s three losses, but she’d scored two goals in each of West’s victories in a 2-3 start. The good news was that she’d been getting some help. Selma Mehmedovic, a sophomore who is Lejla’s sister, also had four goals. So did freshman Anna Mead, who scored the Falcons’ lone goal in a 2-1 loss to Central Cabarrus. Sophomore Lauren Corriher had four assists and a goal in the early games.

“We lost seven seniors, but we’ve been able to fill some voids with five freshmen,” Puglia said. ” All five freshmen — Mead, Brittany Vanhoose, Lesli Guerrero, Evelyn Kwitowski and Emilie Vera — were getting a lot of minutes. The two that stuck out were Mead and Vanhoose.”

Vanhoose was making an impact offensively (two goals, four assists) and defensively. She man-marked South star Madison Henry in West’s 2-0 loss to the Raiders. Henry scored a goal and had an assist, but Puglia said Vanhoose did a remarkable job.

“We got beat on a long ball, and when Henry gets loose like that it’s a goal unless there’s a bad bounce,” Puglia said. “South is very good, but we were in that game. We also led and lost late (2-1) to Central Cabarrus. The only game where we were doing a lot more defending than attacking was the (4-0) loss to Concord.”

Puglia’s forte is defense. He was a defender and keeper in his playing career, so his approach is always going to be defense-first.

“You have to be sound defensively,” he said. “You can’t just go out there and try to outscore people. We want to play 2-1 games, not 6-5 games.”

The Falcons lost a fine goalkeeper in Ryley Corriher, but replaced her with the combined efforts of junior Karen Anaya-Castillo and sophomore newcomer Kelcie Love. Anaya-Castillo made 12 saves against Central Cabarrus. Love made 11 against Concord and seven against South Rowan.

“I recruited Kelcie,” Puglia said. “She’s such a good volleyball player and the footwork in volleyball and soccer goal-keeping is similar.”

Puglia also liked how his defensive people — Kwitowski, juniors Karis Allred and Haley Foster and sophomore Jillian Brown — were coming along.

“We had a lot of rebuilding to do, but we were establishing our defense,” Puglia said. “We were still working on finding the best possible position for everyone, but the girls were accepting every challenge.”

West had 17 freshmen come out for the team, so the Falcons were back in the jayvee business this year. That’s a huge step for the program moving forward.

Things were falling into place faster than Puglia had expected. But play was halted in mid-March by COVID-19 concerns, not long after the Falcons demolished Mount Pleasant, 9-0, for their second victory.

“It’s all surreal right now, but I’m still sending the team things to do and reminding all the girls to stay active,” Puglia said. “Things are pushed back, but not shut down. That’s how we have to look at it.”

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