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Two young head coaches lead young soccer team--only three starters return for Packer girls

Just about everything is new this year for the girls' soccer team - a slug of new players and two new head coaches.

The Packers have not one, but two head coaches in Jon Melendez, last year's varsity assistant, and Laura Bartsch, last year's JV coach. When Jim Flores retired last year after nine seasons of leading the program, the two coaches came up with the idea of power sharing on their own.

They were recently asked if they get along good enough to spend the next two months trying to reach a consensus on everything. They even teamed up to answer.

"I'd have to say we do, otherwise we..." said Melendez. "...would not be doing it," finished Bartsch, with a smile.

Melendez is from Chile, where he lived until moving to West Fargo at the age of 13 with his family. He's a 1999 graduate of West Fargo High School and was named all-state as a member of the boys' soccer team as a senior. He's coached soccer in and around West Fargo ever since, and is currently the Minnesota State University Moorhead mens' club team coach.

Bartsch was an All-American at the University of Mary in Bismarck after a stellar career at St. Mary's Central High School in Bismarck, where she graduated in 1998. She was named all-state three times and helped lead the girls' soccer team to two second place finishes at the state tournament.

Now at West Fargo the two - both in their mid-20s - have a formidable task ahead of them. Last year's team was an all-time West Fargo-best 12-8-1 with a fourth place finish at the state tournament. The only drawback was that 12 seniors played their last games at that state tournament, leaving this year's team with three returning starters and a few reserves from last season.

"I think we'll really have to work hard and get a lot of good leadership on the field, because last year the girls were great leaders and talked a lot," said junior defender Emily Hartley, voted last season's rookie of the year. "I think communication will really be key this year."

In the unlikely event that the weather permits West Fargo to take the field tomorrow for its season opener at Fargo North, the Packers will do so with nine freshmen that have zero varsity experience. While they don't bring seasoning, the coaches said they do bring plenty of enthusiasm.

"Everyone's real excited to be on varsity and start playing" said freshman newcomer Courtney Voeller. "A lot of the freshmen are really nervous to play against the varsity players, but you have to be ready for anything they throw at you on varsity."

Despite the heavy graduation losses and the new faces, neither of the new head coaches views this season as a rebuilding year - even though it clearly is. The coaches agree that since it's their first year in charge of the team, that last year's results don't mean a whole lot to them.

"I'm excited, and I'm not looking back at last year," said Bartsch. "I don't care what the stats were. I don't care about anything like that. I think with the new people in the program, new faces, new team, young team, I think it's going to be a good year. I think we're going to have struggles at first, just to get the experience on the field. But I see us blossoming and being a great team for the next two or three years."

This season the Packers will be without last season's graduates Jill Kassatz, Nicole Hertel and Jenell Lammers, all voted all-conference last season. Kassatz had 25 points last season en route to becoming West Fargo's all-time leading scorer and was a finalist for the state's senior athlete of the year.

"We lost a lot of good seniors from last year, and it was a great year. Some of those freshmen this year though are going to be the key. It's going to be interesting," said Flores, who still coaches other West Fargo soccer teams at various levels.

This season the Packers return three starters, notably senior forward JoJo Haerter, the team's third leading scorer last season. Haerter was voted all-conference last season with six goals and four assists.

"JoJo is a good leader on the field, and she takes the initiative even in practice during hard drills - she picks the girls up," said Melendez. "She's a great ball handling distributor. She's not selfish at all and is a real team player."

Juniors Cassie Beckerleg, a midfielder, and defender Gina Doll, are also returning starters. Beckerleg said having a player on the team with leadership capabilities is all the more important given the team's youth. Haerter is one of three team captains.

"We need someone to keep us together and talk to us," said Beckerleg. "JoJo is one of those team leaders that keep us motivated."

Melendez said Beckerleg has great outside speed and jumping ability. Bartsch said Doll is a speedy hard worker that stays positive.

Other returnees with varsity experience who were not starters, aside from Hartley, include senior defender Rachel Johnson (a captain) and junior Allison Muller.

Senior captain Rachel Vigen, who was last season's backup goal tender, is battling last year's JV goalie, junior Nicole Brokmeier, for the starting keeper spot. Both coaches say the race is too close to call at this point.

The large number of freshmen playing varsity this season will likely play a huge part in determining the team's success or lack thereof. Both defending EDC champion Fargo South and defending state champion Fargo North return plenty of talent this year.

"We're pretty young and inexperienced," said Melendez. "We'll be developing throughout the season to try to become the team that Laura (Bartsch) and I have in mind - the No. 1 team in the state. That's why we're here. That's what we want to accomplish (someday). Right now our goal is to get them to the state tournament."

Regardless of the season's outcome, Haerter said she plans to have fun her senior year, although winning would be nice, she said.

"We're going to have some ups and down," Haerter said. "But I think we'll be all right."