Fresh off unbeaten season, Cougar girls eye soccer playoffs

Fresh off unbeaten season, Cougar girls eye soccer playoffs

Senior Ashley VanBemmelen is enjoying an outstanding season for the unbeaten North Providence High girls' soccer team. Not only has the goalkeeper posted a dozen shutouts in net, but she has also faced 88 shots and allowed just four goals to sneak past her. (Breeze photos by Eric Benevides)
Top-seeded NP will host Division III quarterfinal-round game this weekend

NORTH PROVIDENCE - Now comes the fun part.

After completing its first unbeaten regular season in 13 years on Friday night by downing last-place Tolman, 4-0, the North Providence girls' soccer team has turned the page. The Cougars' focus is squarely on the Division III playoffs and picking up three more victories that would land NP its first state championship since that glorious 2001 season.

"We're cautiously confident," said NP head coach Brendon Vallee. "I think the girls are happy to be (Division III-A regular-season) champs, and the best part of it was that they clinched that so long ago when they beat Middletown (on Oct. 17). I think they're over it and they're ready to move on (to the playoffs)."

The Cougars, who earned the top seed with a 14-0-2 record, are expected to host a quarterfinal-round game on Saturday at a time to be announced and possibly against either Cranston East (which went 5-6-5 in III-A action and lost to NP during the regular season by scores of 2-0 and 4-0) or Central (which posted a 8-3-2 mark in the weaker III-B ranks).

A victory would snap a dreadful seven-game losing streak by the Cougars in the Division III quarterfinals that dates back to 2002 and includes defeats in each of the last two seasons, including last year's painful shoot-out loss to St. Raphael Academy.

"The good thing about the position we're in is that we've had two devastating playoff losses in a row," said Vallee. "Losing in a shootout (last season) was a horrible way to go. A lot of these girls know what it's like to lose in the playoffs and how devastating it is, and I know they don't want to experience that (feeling) again."

While the Cougars occupy the top seed, the next two seeds, Middletown and West Warwick, are in the other side of the tournament bracket. That's good news for NP because both teams gave them fits throughout the season. The Cougars held off the second-place Islanders by scores of 2-0 and 1-0, and the two draws on NP's record came via 1-1 ties with the third-seeded Wizards.

"Theoretically, if all goes well, we won't play them until the finals, and that's kind of the way we wanted it," said Vallee. "But the one scary thing is that there are a lot of teams on our side (of the bracket) that have good records from III-B that we haven't seen. St. Ray's is the fourth seed, and they went 12-0, so if we win and they win, we'll see them in the semis. It's the devil you know vs. the devil you don't know."

To prepare for the postseason and break up a seven-day stretch away from competition, Vallee and his Cougars took a quick drive up Route 7 on Monday afternoon to face North Smithfield in a scrimmage. The Northmen, at 10-6-1, landed a spot in the Division II playoffs, and Vallee appreciated the opportunity for his Cougars to play a team that's a step up in competition.

"I didn't want to go a whole week without a game, and I didn't want to scrimmage our JV team," said Vallee. "I wanted to play somebody that I know was going to give us good competition and stuff to work on. We've been practicing since August, so it's tough coming up with things to go over in practice. But once you play in a game like this one, you're writing stuff down on what you can work on the rest of the week."

If there's one thing the Cougars need to work on, it's finding the back of the net more often. They have averaged a touch over 18 shots per game this year, but scored just 51 times in their 16 contests.

"We've had way more shots than everyone else, but we just haven't been able to find the net," added Vallee, who has just one player with double digits in goals, senior Danya Grimaldi (14). "We're doing everything we can offensively, and we're controlling the game and doing enough to win, but we're not scoring enough goals to (the point) where we can end games early. We're not taking teams completely out of the game yet."

Even though the Cougars aren't finishing off their opponents early, they certainly aren't allowing them to touch the scoreboard. The Cougars' defense has allowed just four goals this season, and goalkeeper Ashley VanBemmelen, who has a dozen shutouts to her credit, has stopped 84 of the 88 shots fired on her.

"Our defense has been doing spectacular," said Vallee, "just four goals allowed - and one of them was a penalty kick and another one was a joke goal. We had one goal scored against us in just the month of October alone. I couldn't be happier."