Flexibility in the back boosts Rangers up front

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Forest Park’s Rachel Lueken, left, high-fived teammates during introductions before last week’s Class 1A sectional matchup against Salem. Lueken and the rest of Forest Park’s defense learned to possess the ball better and become more offensive-minded this season, and the uptick helped the Rangers land a sectional title and a berth in Saturday’s single-game regional at 6 p.m. at fourth-ranked Lawrenceburg.  

By JOSEPH FANELLI
Herald Sports Writer

Midway through the season, in the midst of a 9-0 drubbing of Jeffersonville, Forest Park girls soccer coach Amanda Sicard finally yielded to her captain Rachel Lueken’s persistent requests and gave her stud defensive player some time at forward.

“She didn’t beg me, but she just kept saying, ”˜Coach, coach, please, please,’” Sicard recalled.
All the defensive standout accomplished, in her first time playing offense all season, was log three assists.

It was a fun moment in a lopsided win, but Lueken’s play highlights an undervalued set of abilities Sicard has been preaching to her defense: ball skills and offensive awareness. In a position where preventing goals is the No. 1 priority, Sicard wants her backs to understand it’s still not the only priority. It’s been a slow transformation, but a late-season surge has started to display some of the progress her defensive backs have been making. Forest Park (9-9-1) will put that improvement to the test in Saturday’s 6 p.m. single-game Class 1A regional matchup at No. 4 Lawrenceburg (14-3-2).

The Rangers’ transition from a 1-6 start to sectional champs has been well documented, but Sicard said the real turnaround started with her defensive unit.

“We didn’t really get a new defense (this season), but something felt different this year,” Lueken said. “We just progressed. ... We didn’t just clear the ball, we actually kept possession. Not just booting it out. ... It’s pretty much a (circular) effect where we would boot it out, they come back at us. We boot it out again. We actually kept possession. We went from our defense to our midfield to our forwards.”

It’s a simple idea, but one Sicard has emphasized all season. She wants her girls in the backline to understand that they can be a part of the offense too, just by initiating play with ball possession and smart choices. It’s a mindset that has started to sink in, especially for her two outside backs. But it was challenged with the loss of a key defender late in the season.

Madi Boeglin underwent surgery this week on a torn ACL suffered in late August against North Harrison. The forward-turned-outside back originally returned and wore a brace for six games, but had to call the season quits after re-injuring it again in a September matchup against Washington. The Rangers immediately lost a speedy, reliable presence on the outside.

“Madi was our fastest defender,” Sicard said. “So right away, I was just like, ”˜Who am I going to put in there? How are we going to do this?’”

As a former offensive player, Boeglin had an understanding of what Sicard expected out of her defenders.

“I used to play forward so that kind of helped me be a more offensive player,” Boeglin said. “So whenever I would stop the ball, I would always try to look up and look for a midfielder and not just clear it wherever.”

Tempel


With Boeglin out, Abby Tempel made the switch from the midfield to join Lueken and the other outside back, Lauren May. It was a late-season replacement that could have spelled more trouble for the Rangers if not for Lueken’s solid presence.

“Rachel is the backbone of our team,” Sicard said. “Even though she is a true defender, she could still tell you what a forward, what an outside midfielder, what a goalie (is supposed to do). She knows every position.”

Lueken has helped anchor the defense as her counterparts gained confidence in the back row. Sicard said at first, Tempel and May tended to panic. But the confidence and big-game plays have arrived at the right time of the season.

May was integral in Forest Park’s sectional opener against rival Heritage Hills, staying step for step with Patriot standouts Breigh Hasse and Karaline Staggs.

May


“I couldn’t ask any more from her (against Heritage Hills),” Sicard said. “We didn’t know Lauren had wheels like that.”

Tempel had her own defensive heroics against North Harrison. With the Lady Cats pressing after falling behind 2-0 in the second half, a North Harrison forward gained some separation down the sideline and darted toward the goal in a one-on-one situation with goalie Tabitha Steckler. Tempel, coming from the opposite side of the field, closed the gap and blocked the forward’s shot just as she connected, preventing any late-game drama in the Rangers’ championship win.

“I feel like they’ve really (fallen) into their position roles of when to clear it, when to pass it right away, when to pass it around, when to make runs outside,” Sicard said. “How Madi would make runs outside when she was playing; we need somebody out there who can get into the attack, and Abby is starting to learn that.”

Ultimately, Sicard is trying to relay this kind of flexible thinking to her entire team. It’s the same kind of understanding that she said eluded her in high school, where she spent most games chasing lobs over the top from her midfielders. And as the competition improves every game, it’s more important than ever.

“Kickball is not going to win. We call it cross country kickball,” Sicard said. “They just need to learn how to keep possession. Play the way you face. Sometimes you might have to drop the ball to the defenders to learn to work the ball back around. It’s not always go, go, go.”

The Rangers will continue their postseason run with a trip to Lawrenceburg, and Sicard said the scouting report on the Tigers is that they are a fast and physical bunch. A team effort — especially a defensive one — will determine whether the Rangers’ continue their playoff run.

“I want the girls to learn how to play soccer,” Sicard said. “I want them to learn how to play the game.”

Contact Joseph Fanelli at jfanelli@dcherald.com




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