It was the first team meeting of the season and Eastern Mennonite girls soccer coach Andrew Gascho knew his team was excited about its potential this season.
The Flames were coming off a 14-4 campaign in 2019 that finished with a loss to Fredericksburg Christian in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division III girls soccer quarterfinals. With senior captains Abby Stapleton and Ava Galgano, a pair of fifth-year veterans, leading the way, Eastern Mennonite had its sights set on winning the program's third state title this year.
"In our first team meeting, I said I’d tell them it once and that was that there was potential in this room," said Gascho, who is also in his first year as the school's athletic director. "That was the only time they’d hear me say it. We all know it and we have to go to work for it. It was kind of that elephant in the room. Everyone had that sense that this year could be special. We made the statement once and now we were going to go to work to prove it. It never would have been mentioned again because if your commitment level is right, things will happen the way they should.”
But things didn't happen as they should. After just one game — an 8-0 dismantling of Roanoke Catholic — to open up the season, the VISAA was forced to cancel spring sports due to COVID-19. That left the tight-knit Flames left feeling lost after coming into the season with such high expectations.
"I was honestly in a bit of shock," Stapleton said. "This wasn’t anything I had been expecting and I had been looking forward to this season for so long. It was a bit devastating. I’ve been trying to focus on the positive aspects. I’ve tried not to focus on what I’ve lost and instead focused what I gained through the last four years of experience on that team.”
The cancellation put Gascho in a unique position, too. He had witnessed firsthand just how hard the players had worked leading up to the season and saw the chemistry that was already building. Now, however, he said he was suddenly forced to focus his role on supporting the players emotionally more than coaching them up on the field.
“It was incredibly disappointing," Gascho said. "When they commit to the soccer program at Eastern Mennonite, they commit to a group of girls that are willing to fight for them in everything, willing to push themselves to the limit because of how much they care about their teammates.To have that instantly be cut off is really difficult because they were so excited to work for each other and have those relationships last through the season."
The relationships between the EMHS players is what Gascho said makes the team so special to coach. In his sixth year leading the program, Gascho said it's a unique bond that is shared between the players and one that translates to their success on the field.
“It definitely comes down to team dynamic," Gascho said. "That’s something that we push to the girls on the team incredibly hard. You are committing to something different. It’s not just any other sports team, where you come to practice and put in work because you care about yourself. It’s a different environment and that’s something we’ve really focused on in the culture of our program. ... We want our program to feel different. When they’re out of our program, the girls that come back, they’re like, ‘Wow. That was something I haven’t experienced since I left [EMHS]. That’s the environment we want to have.
"If you’re willing to commit to working for your teammates when bad things come in games, they’re picking you up because they care about you. When things are going well, they’re right along your side celebrating with you. That’s the uniqueness that our program has had."
Since the season was canceled, the players have stayed in touch. Gascho said the team has a Snapchat group chat that it interacts in almost daily and the team does a weekly Bible study on Google Hangouts that is optional for players to attend.
"That’s something that might not have happened directly during the season," Gascho said. "We have devotionals before the games, but this is something that’s really intentional and it’s creating a really valuable and meaningful experience for them now. Those are a couple of things we’re doing, just trying to maintain that fun that we used to be able to have for two hours every day.”
Those off-the-field moments are unique, Galgano agreed. As one of the area's top players, Galgano said she has played on a lot of travel teams over the years and the focus is primarily the on-the-field results. With the Flames, she insisted that things are different.
"The biggest difference is that the people at school care about who you are as a person, not who you are on the field," Galgano said. "It’s not so much about the competition. You’re playing for each other. Going on the field and playing with people who care about you and you care about really makes an impact. You see someone working their butt off, so you do the same.”
That type of wisdom from Galgano was also evident from Stapleton. The two were eighth graders in 2016 when Eastern Mennonite finished as the state runner-up. The year before — Gascho's first year as coach — the Flames won their second state title with a win over Trinity School at Meadow View.
“We felt like we had the potential, felt like we could make a really deep run into states," Stapleton said. "This was the year everyone thought we’d make it far. It was fun to look at our team and our talent because we had a lot of fresh talent this year and it allowed us to play with the positioning of our returning players. A lot of girls were being pushed out of their comfort zone and had the opportunity to learn and grow. I was super excited to be able to learn, grow and be challenged. There were a lot of really, really exciting things going on.”
Gascho said there was no doubt his seniors — Stapleton, Galgano, Maya Ferrell, Meghan Eggert and Maira Myers — were the leaders of this year's squad. But a batch of young talent had also joined the roster this season and that provided the Flames some unique new opportunities on the field.
"We pushed right from the beginning about pushing girls that were in a good position last year to feel like, ‘You can be more effective and our team can be more successful if you move,'" Gascho said. "That might mean a couple less goals, doubling your assists. We just had total buy-in from everyone. They trusted that they were willing to be put in spots that benefit the team as a whole. When you have a group of girls willing to play a different position because they see how it works or they’re trained in so many different positions, you can move them around and make them shift and they can be fluid on the field — that’s pretty special."
Even veterans such as Stapleton and Galgano could see the benefits. They said the team had installed several new formations and put players in different positions this year to try and build depth. The goal was to set themselves up for a deeper run in this year's state tournament.
“We had a lot of young talent come in with speed and people who have played for several years and know how to work well with each other," Galgano said. "In practices, you could just see the combination plays that usually don’t happen until later in the season. We got there after a couple of weeks, so I think it shows that if we had that much progress in a couple of weeks, we could have made it really far based off our technique and ability to work together.”
As one of five seniors on the team, Stapleton said she felt more pressure to be a role model off the field this year than in past seasons. This was her second-straight season being a captain, but she said it was a completely different feel.
“This was our fourth or fifth year playing soccer together," Galgano said. "It was really difficult to know that we would probably be the best team we had been in the past several years. I feel confident in saying we would have gotten really far this year compared to previous seasons. It’s frustrating that we had a really good opportunity and didn’t get a chance to play.”
As the two captains now depart EMHS — Galgano will study chemistry at James Madison University while Stapleton plans to pursue a biology degree at Furman University — they will go down as two of the better players in program history.
“It’s really hard to say I’m not going to remember beating teams that were better than us, but the thing I’ve taken away the most are the relationships I’ve created with people," Galgano said. "Seeing how strongly these girls and our coaches care for each other and work for each other — that has created a lot of opportunities to win. But that wouldn’t happen without our relationships with each other.
Stapleton added: "Our coaches have worked so hard to build a community of trust and respect and just love and care. Something I’ve learned being in this program for so long is that it’s not always about what’s on the scoreboard. Of course, I’m a competitor and I’m an athlete. I love to win, really don’t like to lose. But what this program has shown me is that sometimes it’s more important that you trust and care about and have fun with the people who are on the field with you."
That sense of accountability and trust between the players was evident in the first team meeting of the season when Gascho addressed the the team's lofty expectations. And although they never had a chance to try to achieve them, they insisted that what got them to that point can never be taken away.
"The girls on my team — we’re hanging out off the field and genuinely friends, sisters, a family," Stapleton said. "We care about each other. We’re role models for one another. My biggest takeaway is that moving forward in life, I’ll always look for relationships like the ones that were built on that team and within that program.”