Girls Soccer: South Hadley creating a culture on and off the pitch

  • South Hadley’s Jordyn Balint, left, dribbles during a game against Ludlow earlier this season. FOR THE GAZETTE/J. ANTHONY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/15/2021 4:24:31 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Lauren Marjanski stood directly in front of Elyse Manzi with her back to her captain as the South Hadley girls soccer team prepared for a corner kick.

It looked weird. Was the freshman in the wrong place? Or confused about who was taking a corner kick? She was blocking the senior’s sight lines for a goal-scoring opportunity against West Springfield, a perennial Division 1 threat in Western Massachusetts.

Manzi popped the ball between Marjanski’s legs then ran around her and regained control. She sent the ball into Salle Waite, who tapped it in for a goal. It proved a winner, as the Tigers prevailed 3-1 last week against the Terriers.

“It’s fun when they work especially because we work on them in practice. Sometimes they go, and sometimes they don't, but it's fun to see it working well out on an opponent,” Manzi said. “It’s good not to just have a straight corner kick all the time because those just get kind of boring, and we like to have some fun.”

Creativity, fun and camaraderie are the pillars of the South Hadley girls soccer program. The trick plays they concoct are one representation. The Tigers also regularly gather for team dinners (and breakfast) at coach Rich Marjanski’s house, craft team dance videos before practice and braid each other’s hair before playoff runs.

“It’s kind of something we’ve built into our program, and something that, especially with the younger kids, we're still teaching them that stuff,” Marjanski said. “So the older kids are doing a great job at mentoring the younger kids and explaining to them how the South Hadley soccer program is represented around Western Mass.”

The mixture has worked so far. Since coach Marjanski took over in 2018, the Tigers have won two sectional titles and appeared in two state finals, winning the 2019 title.

Fun and games alone don’t win championships, however. Rich Marjanski demands a lot from his players.

“We’re gonna get down to business and then we're gonna go into the game trying to win. We're gonna compete. Alright, we're gonna play South Hadley soccer,” he said. “What's good about that is you know the kids get really tough skin early on. When I tell them coaching is not criticism, and I'm just pointing out your mistakes so that you don't do them again. And kids adapt to that.”

The Tigers have bought in. They see his playful side as much as his serious one.

“He does a great job with us. Obviously he's a hard coach, but he knows that we like to have fun and he likes to have fun too, and that's a huge part he started with the team bondings,” Manzi said. “If you're not close with your team, you're not able to read each other, you’re not gonna be able to find the passes creatively. It's just going to be the same thing.”

South Hadley, which was 3-1 this season entering Wednesday, employs its trick plays — or elaborate set pieces — judiciously. Coach Marjanski calls them out from the sidelines. They have simple names like “Tiger” and “Chipper.” If the players on the field don’t like the look, they can always audible to a more traditional look.

“He knows that we trust each other on the field 100-percent. And that's what the big team bonding work is,” Manzi said. “We know how to read the game, we know how to read each other on the field, like if it’s good, and it's gonna be on we'll do it. But if it's not, we know what not to do and that's the big part of how close we are is we can read each other really well without saying anything.”

South Hadley doesn’t hunt style over substance. Guile can generate goals, but it rarely beats pointed passing and purposeful runs.

“We're really big on making the smartest pass possible and getting it as close to the goal as possible before we get the shot,” South Hadley senior Kacey Levrault said. “That's what he enforces, to just get the best shot possible, and we try to do that.”

There are just many paths to get there.

“We have a few tricks up our sleeve,” Manzi said.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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