The National Soccer Coaches Association ranked the Valkyries the 16th best team in America for 2016. Although Coach Jaclyn Puntillo and her players appreciate the recognition, it hasn’t distracted them from their goals in a new season.
“It felt really good to be recognized, and it was good to look back on what we did last year,” she says. “But in the end, we are not going to sit back and spend time on what we did last year. We are looking forward.”
With a target on their back, Sacred Heart knows they will be getting opponents’ best shot each game. After seven seniors graduated – with three of them being starters on their backline – it may take a few games for younger players to learn the ropes, so to speak, in game action.
“We have put a huge emphasis on defense and we will continue to do that, but I think this year, we are going to lack a little bit in the experience,” Puntillo adds. “It will not be the technical ability, but it is more game experience. The girls on our backline are going to be a lot younger than years past. So that kind of changes some things in terms of our goals and how we want to play.”
But in case you’re unaware of the culture that Valkyrie players are immersed in, these types of challenges in actuality become the motivation for Sacred Heart’s success. You couple that with intense training sessions, and it’s safe to say this team is ready is defend their crown.
Coach Puntillo instills a competitive element to their preparation. For the girls, they recognize the level they need to play at early on, which sets a high standard for them as well as the coaching staff. And sometimes with higher standards come the inextricable pressures to meet those expectations.
However, to Puntillo and her players, being one of the top teams in the country doesn’t bring any added pressure, but remaining the best team in the state of Kentucky? Maybe so.
“We don’t put a lot of stock in those preseason rankings. We are more concerned with the end of season ranking,” she says. “I do think there is some pressure on the girls from last year. They recognized that they have a target on their backs and everybody wants to come out and beat them. So they never get to switch it off. Every game they are going to get their opponents’ best. That does increase the pressure a bit.”
This is familiar territory for Sacred Heart. The past three seasons, they have witnessed the best from opposing teams, but have been able to withstand with 67 wins to only eight losses during that span, leaving opponents exasperated as they have discovered it is nearly impossible to score a goal against this program.
“We allow ourselves to get excited about stuff like this” Puntillo adds about her team’s perspective on taking opponents’ best shot. “I cannot stress to my team enough how important the preparation piece is. Confidence comes from preparation, and we are well prepared. They take care of themselves by getting sleep, eating well and recovering after training sessions. So because we are able to be prepared, we are confident, and I think that confidence shows in what we do.”
It says a lot about a program that takes their day-to-day regimens serious in efforts to have another remarkable season. It has been said that if you sow a thought, you reap an action, and Sacred Heart will look to continue sowing confident thoughts that produce the right actions on the soccer field. Hopefully, that will lead to their ultimate destiny of defending their state championship.
There may be some tough days throughout the season and players may feel less motivated from time to time, but the sisterhood and accountability is what makes the difference to Puntillo.
“There is nobody here who comes out and says, ‘I don’t really feel like training today,’ or if they do feel that way, the people around them pick them up and lift them. That says a lot about the quality of kids I have. They are good soccer players, but they are really good people.” VT
Photos by Jim Stodghill