No one knows exactly how long it has been since the Austin Prep girls’ soccer team last made the playoffs, but it’s certainly been a very long time.
“Some of the girls went and looked it up,” said Jessica Chiachio, in her third season as the Cougars’ coach. “I think it was 14 years ago or something like that.”
Not that it matters anymore, because Austin Prep clinched a playoff berth Friday with a 3-0 win over Somerville.
The Cougars are currently 9-1-1 overall and 5-1-1 in the Catholic Central Large, good enough for second place in the conference. Last year the Reading school finished 3-9-2 and in fifth place, behind Cardinal Spellman, Bishop Fenwick, St. Mary’s, and Arlington Catholic.
“It’s hard to come out of a season like that,” said Chiachio. “To come back as an underdog is I think is even better. I never thought we would be competing for a league title.”
The Cougars have already defeated Arlington Catholic, beat St. Mary’s twice, and played Bishop Fenwick to a 0-0 tie. Their only loss so far this season came against Cardinal Spellman — the defending conference champion — a 2-0 heartbreaker.
“After we lost to Spellman they were so upset,” said Chiachio. “I almost feel pressure. I don’t want them to lose; I want them to keep doing well.”
Austin Prep has 10 seniors and Chiachio has been with them since she joined the program at the middle school level, when those girls were in eighth grade.
“As eighth graders they are so little. Now I have them as seniors and I’m seeing this change and growth in them, not only as players but as people,” said Chiachio.
In addition to her senior class, there are two juniors, three sophomores, and four freshmen (two of whom were recently pulled up from junior varsity) that fill out the roster.
Senior captain Kristin Randolph is leading the offense with nine goals and six assists. Junior forward Alexa Mikula follows with seven goals and three assists and senior captain Maddy Shaw has contributed six goals and four assists. Two sisters, sophomore Megan and senior Ally Braciska, have a combined five goals and four assists.
As impressive as the attack is, however, the Cougars’ defense is making all the difference this year. The defense has allowed just one goal in six games — in addition to their four shutouts — for a goals against average of 0.7. The loss to Cardinal Spellman (8-1) was the only time Austin Prep gave up more than one goal.
“This year we went with a more defensive approach and ironically we’re scoring more,” said Chiachio.
She attributes the new emphasis on defense to her junior varsity coach Steve Flaherty, who joined the program this year.
“He and I sat down and I told him I was more offensive minded and he said, ‘Oh, cut that out!’ and I was up for a change,” said Chiachio. “We coached them through it and they picked it up so fast. It’s really wonderful how coachable they are.”
Freshman Mia Karraf, sophomore Julie Barchlemas, and seniors Jackie Hull and Stephanie McQuaid make up the back line, with Cathy Charry in goal.
Chiachio believes that the team’s attitude has also made a difference in their stellar season this year.
“We always had really great girls and really great athletes, but this year we are more upbeat. I don’t know if it’s because we’re winning or we’re winning because we’re acting this way,” she said.
“I can’t wait to go to the postseason and see their excitement there because they’ve never done it before. It’s weird though, how many people can say they’ve coached the same girls for five years? I’m so happy and so proud of them.”
Games to watch
Franklin at Oliver Ames, Tuesday, 3:30 — In this Hockomock League crossover game, the No. 13 Tigers take on No. 6 Franklin. Both teams are in first place in their respective divisions.
Acton-Boxboro at Cardinal Spellman, Tuesday, 3:45 — No. 4 Cardinal Spellman have not been challenged much this year, but Kaylee Sye and the No. 10 Colonials could change that.
Bishop Fenwick at Austin Prep, Wednesday, 4 — These teams battled to a 0-0 tie earlier this year. Wednesday’s rematch may determine who remains in the running for the division title.
Canton at Mansfield, Wednesday, 6 — This match pits two Top 20 teams with identical 6-1-3 records against one another. Expect a low-scoring, hard-fought game.
Newton North at Beverly, Saturday, 11 a.m. — The No. 3 Panthers take on No. 2 Newton North in a battle of unbeatens.
Cat Calsolaro can be reached at email@example.com.