Gonzaga Prep surprised everyone this season. Not only did the Bullpups end a three-year series of identical 5-4 records by reaching the top of the Greater Spokane League table, but they did so in convincing fashion by running the slate at 9-0.
Tonight, the ladies at G-Prep face the reigning two-time state and GSL champion Central Valley Bears in the district semifinals with a chance to lock up a state berth.
It was an abbreviated two-year process to get to this point for the program, however, under new coach Billy Barmes, who polished a team with promise into a championship side over the course of 14 months.
"I think part of it is we have a particularly good group of players from top to bottom and last year coming in (there was) a new coach, a new mindset for working hard every chance they get," Barmes said of what the difference was between the current 9-0 campaign was versus their three previous seasons.
"I think last year was definitely the growing pains year. We had some talent, but a very young group; couldn't put it together in some games we should have been competing in. It was that and them coming back knowing the expectations of me for this year. Man, they really, I think, the whole roster - each player - did what they needed to do to improve, and so this year is just the culmination of that. Just having a lot of committed and good players."
"Larkin is obviously a special player. She has one mission in the game, and that is to get around the ball and affect the play because I know that if she can find the ball, she will either score goals or help create goals for us," Barmes said. "Same thing with junior Darby Doyle in there. The two of them just, wherever the ball is, one of the two is on it and the other is playing off and helping us get forward."
The duo were part of an offensive unit that led the league with 37 goals this year, besting Mead's 35 and 34 from Ferris. More importantly, it was a vast boost from last year's paltry dozen, and complemented an excellent defensive effort.
Though 7-2 University boasted a stellar defense with four goals allowed and six shutouts, the Prep defense put forth a similarly impressive outing with six goals against and four shutouts.
"They are growing. As we are as a team, they are certainly growing in their consistency. Last year we had two sophomores, a freshman and a junior in our back line and this year its two juniors, a sophomore and a senior.
"We didn't start the season terribly organized. We had both of our centerbacks (starting cold) - one who doesn't play club soccer and the other one who had a broken toe all summer - so it took them a few games to really start connecting with each other like they did last year. We started off our season giving up five goals against Kamiakin, so we have come a long way from there for sure. And Zoe Boleneus, our goalkeeper, has really come into her best form of the year at the right time."
The starting point for the defensive effort is holding center midfielder Annie Clark, who was the first player Barmes mentioned when asked about his seniors.
They were tested early in a week one game that in retrospect may have been a huge factor in determining the league champion, prevailing 1-0 against that staunch University side on a 60th minute goal from senior Becca Crum.
"Becca, who plays out on the wing, has scored some key goals for us and in some of our big games. She brings us a great presence - someone that can help keep the ball - and also has a great left-footed finishing touch."
From that point, the team scored at least two goals per game, beat recent powerhouse Central Valley 3-1 midseason and finished with a strong second half to the season that saw them defeat three title contenders in the final three weeks.
"Drynan, who is a basketball player that only plays soccer in the fall season, has really come into form the second half of the season. She got a lot of opportunities early in the season and didn't finish em. We worked a ton on finishing and one-on-one battles in the attacking third and she's continued to persist in her attacking presence, and has gotten some goals and assists out of it."
They celebrated senior night with a comfortable 3-1 win over 3A top seed Mt Spokane.
The only blip on their campaign was a dropped point in a shootout victory against Lewis & Clark in the third game of league play after a 2-2 draw in which the Bullpups fell behind twice in the second half and forced overtime and the shootout with a 79th minute Russell goal.
A year ago, the Bullpups defense showed signs of the promise with eight goals allowed in eight games played, but the team was 2-3 versus its 4A counterparts as they played to their third consecutive sixth-place finish in the GSL.
They were then ousted from the postseason in a shootout loss by Lewis & Clark after a 1-1 draw in the opening game of districts.
"It's been good," he said of his progress in working with the team in his second year. "I came in relatively late in the process last year so I didn't really have enough time to implement an offseason plan or even give them a good idea of what we wanted to test in preseason.
"So, to have the full cycle this second year, and be able to have them knowing ahead of time this is gonna be the physical expectations, the technical expectations that we are gonna test you on in the couple days. Because really, if they don't come in with that baseline, it's hard to make up. The season is short and so that's the biggest piece for year two is they know all the expectations coming in. They put in the work in the offseason that I was going to hold them accountable for.
"And again, its a group where everyone has gotten better from last year to this year. We only lost the two seniors last year, so it is what I knew it could be.
Updated GSL / MCC District Playoff Brackets
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