Feb. 23—If there's any league in this wacky sports year where the winner can claim it is the de facto state champion, it's in the girls soccer 2A Greater St. Helens League.
After sweeping the top three spots in the 2A State Tournament in 2019, the 2A GSHL is still loaded with talent. State champion Columbia River remains the perennial favorite; state runner-up Hockinson returns a strong core; Ridgefield brings an influx of new talent to integrate with a bevy of established stars.
"If we go out and win this division, we look at it as we just won the state championship," first-year Ridgefield coach Jeff Lukowiak said.
While the top teams and players should be familiar — although Washougal will likely push that elite tier — their play style and coaches may look vastly different.
In an extended offseason, the powerhouse 2A GSHL saw a pair of coaching changes from two of its top teams. After 10 years with the Ridgefield program, Robby Trimbo stepped away. In his place, the Spudders hired Lukowiak, a longtime Washington Timbers coach.
Hockinson coach Joe Chicks accepted a job with Lower Columbia College in September after five years with the Hawks. He is replaced by George Moya, who was an assistant coach with Ridgefield last season and has coached with the Washington Timbers.
The two new coaches bring extensive coaching backgrounds and new ideas to programs coming off some of their best finishes in school history.
Making adjustments no easy task
With few official practice days, worsened by a severe snowstorm, Lukowiak and Moya have both had to implement new systems and expectations during sparing on-field time with a full squad.
"We had a gameplan to come in and build on a very successful program," Lukowiak said. "We weren't able to do that until about three weeks ago."
While tactics and strategy are always ever-changing, teaching those in direct ways is more challenging when coaches have not had much in-person interaction with players.
"With any coaching change, we'll have to learn new things," Ridgefield senior defender Mackenzie Dewey said. "The biggest thing for us right now is just communication. We haven't gotten that time together like most seasons."
For Hockinson, their offseason with Moya was even shorter. Moya was hired in January. Until then, the Hawks were meeting on their own to practice in small groups.
"When I found out (Chicks was leaving), I was heartbroken," Hawks senior Ellie Seekins said. "He was honestly one of my best friends."
Seekins was also complimentary of Moya, while noting the team is still getting acclimated to the new coach.
"I think we'll have a lot more of an attacking style this year," she said. "It is definitely a change, but I like him and trust him to lead us to a successful season."
Strength in experience
While the tweaks and style changes of new coaches will take time to fully integrate, Hockinson and Ridgefield have plenty to build upon.
The Hawks, coming off a program-best state runner-up finish, return a quartet of all-league players in Seekins, Jamie Jeshcke, Kati Waggoner and Kendall McGraw. Senior Alyssa Pfaender and junior Payton Lawson, who missed last year with injuries, rejoin the squad.
"It was a great team then and a great team now," Moya said of how fortunate he was to land the Hawks' job. "It falls in line with how I play and how I coach. I think it was a natural fit."
Ridgefield, too, is still loaded with talent after a third state semifinal appearance in six years. Juniors Elizabeth Farley and Paytn Barnette, and sophomore Claire Jones return as all-league players. They also started two freshmen in a season-opening win over Hudson's Bay.
"This is a very strong program going forward. They're only going to get better and better," Lukowiak said. "I think if we had the opportunity to play for a state championship this year, we'd be there."
Players to watch
Elizabeth Farley, jr., Ridgefield — She was a first-team all-league pick as a sophomore. She'll be counted on for a bigger leadership role in the heart of the Spudders' lineup.
Reggie Griffith, sr., Columbia River — The Clark soccer signee played a key role in River's title-winning 2019, scoring 13 goals and 10 assists. She will be an even bigger focal point this season.
Lauren Snedeker, sr., Washougal — The Seattle Pacific University commit will keep the Panthers competitive in the talent-rich 2A Greater St. Helens League.
Taylor Tinnon, sr., Union — The senior netminder was a big part of the Titans' state run a season ago, allowing just eight goals in 19 games.
Ellie White, jr., Mountain View — With Olivia Fothergill now at the University of Nevada, a strong Mountain View team will turn to White to lead the offense.