The last couple winters of Paradise Honors girls soccer were hard to push through.
Senior forward Sierra Sweeney played a bit as a freshman, then skipped her sophomore season before returning to the varsity as a junior. Morale was about the same.
“Everyone in my freshman year was in the mindset that we suck and we’re going to lose by a lot. My junior year, the coach had a meeting and said, ‘We’re just going to have fun. We know we’re not going to win.’ That got in everyone’s mindset,” Sweeney said. “When coach B came in he said, ‘This is how we’re going to work to accomplish our goals.’ He pushes us in practice to reach those goals. I think it was all about that approach and attitude.”
Scott Bergeron arrived in the summer to coach the Panthers. And a team that compiled a 10-28 record in the last three seasons started 5-2 and outscored opponents 47-7.
Now the team is 7-2.
Bergeron played for the Sereno club, Scottsdale Chaparral and Scottsdale Community College growing up. He has coached for two decades, mostly in the club ranks though he led the Shadow Ridge varsity boys program for three years.
This is his first season coaching girls. Bergeron applied for the opening after signing on to teach at the charter school.
“I’ve never coached girls. I coached co-ed last year for Legacy Traditional. This is probably the best experience I’ve had. It’s a great group of girls,” Bergeron said.
The first-year coach said Sweeney, senior midfielder Khaya Sims, senior defender Trudie Hoyler and junior forward Sydney Rolfe embraced a new concept of soccer and the rest of the roster followed.
“I knew we would really have to focus on small passing, quick drills and getting these kids conditioned and communicating. From day one we really worked on triangle passing and two- and three-touch soccer. That’s what really set the tone for the year,” Bergeron said.
Hoyler and Sims endured three rough seasons on the varsity, though the 5-7 team in 2016-17 when they were freshmen had signs of hope.
“As freshmen we were running like chickens with our heads cut off. We were getting thrown onto the field against juniors and seniors. It wasn’t as developed. We probably had two good players,” Sims said.
One reason Bergeron’s short passing game was easy to embrace is the lack of a consistent style of play beforehand.
Last year in particular, Sweeney said, the Panthers played as individuals.
“We weren’t as invested in trying to learn how to play soccer as just playing in games and trying to do your best. This year is definitely a year of learning how to play and how to be more efficient in the game and more as a team,” Hoyler said.
The 2018-19 Panthers reached the 3A play-in tournament — as the 24th and final team in the field. Sahuarita summarily dismissed them 7-0.
Bergeron said he wanted to raise the bar.
“I set high expectations from day one. From the start we knew we had a special team. After our first four or five games, we knew we had something special going on here that we could build on. (The Northwest Christian) game was kind of the climax of our season so far to see where we were and what we needed to work on for the postseason,” Bergeron said.
The winning formula comes from more than returning players and a new coach. Nine varsity players are back from last year, but they have received a considerable boost from six freshmen.
Sims said she went to a middle school game last winter and was impressed with how the eighth graders played.
“Their excitement is what pushing us a lot. Our defensive line is mostly freshmen and our outside midfielder is a freshman. They’re all really good and we all trust them,” Sweeney said.
Thus far, Paradise Honors’ finishers have been the veterans. Sweeney leads the way with 18 goals, while Rolfe added in 15 goals in the first seven games.
Hoyler said this team plays better on flanks and through the defense and keeper.
“The style of play is way quicker. We do one-two passes and multiple combos. Last year it was more of sending the ball over and hoping someone would get it. Now we’re more of a build out of the back kind of team,” Sims said.
Even the two losses provided reasons for hope. The Panthers were able to hang with 2019 quarterfinalist Trivium Prep in a 2-1 loss Dec. 12 in Goodyear.
Paradise Honors pushed defending 3A state champion Northwest Christian in the first half of their Jan. 9 on the Crusaders’ home field. Rolfe scored the opening goal and the teams were tied at 1 after a half. Northwest Christian’s depth eventually wore the Panthers down in a 4-1.
“Playing teams like this is something that teaches you humility and I think that’s one thing that’s always great to learn. Playing teams as amazing this teaches you, because you learn why they’ve been so successful. To not be terrified and feel like it was a pretty fair game throughout is the best thing for our team. We know exactly what to fix,” Hoyler said.
The Panthers have one more milestone game Jan. 31 at 2019 semifinalist Yuma Catholic. By then the final piece of Paradise Honors’ puzzle should be comfortable.
Shadow Ridge transfer Hannah Redwood became eligible and began her junior season in Tuesday afternoon’s game at Odyssey Institute in Buckeye. She will share goalkeeping duties with sophomore Brianna Roney.
“I honestly think if we put our work forth and do our two- and three-touch pass soccer, communicate and stay positive, this team this year. I really think they can bring a championship home to Paradise Honors, the first one for the school,” Bergeron said.
Wherever they end up, the Panthers appreciate how far they have come in two short months.
Sims said the struggles of the past three years makes her more grateful to play on this team.
“I’m super grateful for our coach. I think that slopping through these last three years has been really hard on the passion and the positivity. This year is like that final hurrah. I’m finally excited to practice and I’m not absolutely terrified for games, now that I don’t think we’re going to go in and lose it every single time. We’re competitive, not some little school no one should worry about,” Hoyler said