A tremendous trio is leading the Hill-Murray girls' soccer team to its strongest season in recent years.
Dana Savino, Julianna Gernes and Grace Bestler have all played varsity soccer since they were freshmen. Together, the triangle of seniors make up the core of a team that has improved steadily in each of the past four years.
This is the third year for head coach Craig Mallace and assistant Gordon Ferguson at Hill-Murray. Two recent losses haven't changed their view that it's the best team they have fielded thus far.
"Team chemistry's a lot better," Savino said. "We all get along. We love each other."
The flow and camaraderie are evident to coaches.
"The soccer connection is definitely there," Ferguson said. "You can see it. They jell really well. They just look up and they know where each other are. It's something that you don't see regularly."
Quick touches, passing and possession are the keys to this group. They work as a cohesive unit, yet they are very different players. Gernes leads the team in goal scoring with a whopping 19. She gets the ball and is very direct.
"She knows exactly what she wants," Mallace said.
Savino, a midfielder with nine goals, brings great soccer sense all over the field. Her unselfishness helps develop the play and move the ball efficiently.
"Dana is one of the few people I've ever worked with who knows exactly where every person is on the field when she gets the ball," Mallace said. "She's always thinking about her teammates over herself."
Then there's Bestler, the unsung hero. Gernes and Savino may get most of the goals and assists, but Bestler is the best leader this coaching staff has seen during their tenure at Hill-Murray. She brings composure and works seamlessly with both the back and front lines, connecting everybody and keeping the team positive.
"She's been exceptional every game," Mallace said. "She knows her role. She knows where she should be on the field. She doesn't care about goals and assists. And she's almost like a mother to all the kids. She's such a great role model."
Defender Callyn Loughry holds the back together. The Pioneers, who have been battling injuries and illnesses -- Loughry was among the casualties -- have hit a rough patch recently. Consecutive losses to South St. Paul, White Bear Lake and Mahtomedi put their record at 8-4-2. The setback comes at a tough time as the playoffs near, but it's nothing the girls can't battle through.
Bestler believes a healthy Pioneers team is a dangerous one.
"We all know how each other plays," Bestler said. "We push each other on the field and we strive to be the best we can be within our group and hopefully the team goes along with what we're doing and we push each other to be better."
They will need to improve team defense and rely heavily on the team's upperclassmen. Mallace is not a screamer from the sidelines, which makes the tactical trio even more valuable as leaders and field generals. With their experience, they hope to make a strong push for the playoffs.
"We all want to go far. We all want it so bad," Gernes said. "That makes us work harder."