Tough at the top

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Despite being more than 880 miles apart, the Waubonsie Valley (Ill.) and Apex (N.C.) girls' soccer teams couldn't have been closer last season.

Finishing No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the final NSCAA/Adidas poll for 2007, the distant competitors finally broke into the national rankings. To listen to the team's coaches talk about their playing and training styles, you can tell they're coached by similar minds.

"We emphasize keeping the ball, using our skill and problem-solving ability to beat teams, not just our athleticism," says Waubonsie coach Julie Bergstrom.

"I'm more of a psychology kind of person, so I focus on the mental preparedness and toughness they have to have to get themselves ready for the game," says Apex coach Kevin Todd. "They have the technical skills and tactical awareness, but the mental game is the deciding factor, especially with teams so close in caliber."

The spots atop the rankings were not the only parts of the journey that the two teams found similar. Both faced their own form of heartbreak and hard knocks the prior season. In the previous season finish, Waubonsie only had two losses -- one regular-season defeat in double-overtime, and a playoff loss on penalty kicks. Apex finished its year after Broughton High knocked in a goal in the final 10 seconds of the state playoffs quarterfinals.

Now coming off success, the question is: will this season be another comparable year for the Warriors and Cougars? From the get-go, the odds are against it.

Bergstrom graduated eight players last year -- losses that would ordinarily devastate a team. "The seniors added a lot of personality and experience to the team," says Bergstrom. "But we also returned a good core group of talent. The kids that are still on the team, a lot of them are juniors and they were on the team as freshmen. So there is still a lot of experience coming back."

Namely midfielders Briane Rodriguez, an NSCAA All-America, and Vanessa DiBernardo, Waubonsie's leading scorer and a member of the U.S. Under-15 Youth Women's National Team. Also backing the Warriors is goalkeeper Claire Hanold, a verbal-commit to DePaul and school record-holder with only 15 goals allowed in 54 games.

The Cougars, meanwhile, are experienced in a different way. They lost a few D-I players, including All-America Jennifer Partenheimer (now at North Carolina-Greensboro) and defender Alyson Santili (now at North Carolina State). But this year, Apex has its largest senior class to date with 13.

"Every one of them was there last year, so they understand the difficulties in winning the conference and state tournaments," says Todd. "And because of what happened last year, they've become a target and teams, invariably, will play better against us, because they see us as a very successful team from last year, so we're always going to get the other team's best shot."

And they already have. In their home opener on Feb. 25, Apex fell, 1-0, to Leesville Road. A tough bit to swallow for a team coming off a title run.

So, while the Cougars have more veterans, "gelling," as Todd puts it, will be the key, while the Warriors will look to fill the eight holes from last year with this season's pool of juniors and other experienced players.

"Every season is new and we re-evaluate ourselves," says Bergstrom. "We have a goal and we're going to try our best to achieve it, but, in terms of pressure, it's all what you make of it."