Kyra Wolonsovich is lucky. She only has to face Caitlin Harty, the top returning goal scorer in the state, in practice.
For all other keepers on the Beverly High schedule this fall, be forewarned: The Panthers’ senior striker will likely connect at least once, if not twice per game.
Harty found the back of the net in 19 out of the 22 games she played last fall and tallied a state-high and Northeastern Conference-record 50 goals, along with 12 assists, earning Globe All-Scholastic honors.
“She received a lot of recognition last year and she deserved it,” said Beverly High School’s 10-year coach Kristin Simpson, a 2000 alum who watched Harty break her own single-season scoring record a year ago.
“But she just wanted to win and she was going to do whatever was good for the team, because at the end of the day, she just wants to win soccer games.”
And last year, that’s exactly what she did.
Harty, ranked No. 1 in her class academically with a 4.7 weighted grade point average, was one of five conference all-stars who powered Beverly to an 18-4 record last fall, carrying the Panthers to the longest postseason journey in program history before losing to eventual undefeated state champion Franklin in the state semifinals.
“I think we were a little surprised at first,” said Harty, who has committed to attend Holy Cross next year.
“But once we hit the playoffs we kind of got that confidence where once we won we thought, ‘Why not us?’ ”
And while she relished the postseason run, her most memorable moment was breaking the school single record of 33 goals, held by Simpson, who has coached her since she was 10.
The record-breaker against Salem last October was also her 100th career point, and Simpson called an immediate timeout so the team could embrace Harty and celebrate.
“She told me, ‘if it was anyone, I’m glad it was you,’ and so that really meant a lot,” said Harty, who shortly thereafter broke Simpson’s career point record with her 104th.
Now Harty will pursue the 100-goal mark — she is just eight away — but it’s an accomplishment that she says wouldn’t be possible to reach without her teammates.
“I couldn’t score if I didn’t get the passes from my team,” said the 5-foot-7 forward. “The team relies on me to finish, but I couldn’t do it without them playing me the ball.”
On her wing is Eva Gourdeau, a two-time all-conference forward who completes what is arguably the most feared striker tandem in the state.
“It’s a really good treat to have Caitlin up top with me because I don’t think a lot of people can say that they play next to one of the best girls in the state,” said the junior, who has already committed to attend Syracuse. “That definitely makes it a lot easier going forward.”
And heading into this season, the Panthers are the team to beat in the NEC.
With the outstanding output from them last fall, the team is fortunate to have 12 returning players (four senior starters graduated).
They will also return all five conference all-stars from last season.
“We’re pretty much coming back with the same team that we had last season, so the experience is definitely going to play a big part this year,” said Simpson, who is also the all-time leading scorer at the University of Indiana-Purdue. “Seeing where we left off last season, we have a lot of expectations from the girls right from the get-go.”
They are determined to advance farther in tournament play and win their first NEC title since 1999, Simpson’s senior season.
Last Tuesday, in a late test of the preseason, the Panthers took on the Pingree School in South Hamilton, a squad coached by Simpson’s husband, Dushawne.
While Harty started right where she left off, with a turnaround left-footed goal from 12 yards out, the Panthers fell convincingly in the scrimmage, 4-1.
Simpson noted that while there is improvement that needs to be made, the squad had very few reserves due to a number of nagging injuries.
Most of the banged-up players are considered day-to-day, except for Bryant-bound senior captain Kristen O’Connor, who is expected to be sidelined at least through the first week of the season with a separated shoulder.
And with the arrival of Wolonsovich from Bishop Fenwick, goalie Casey Cook can shift back out to a field position on the midfield.
“It’s still preseason so we’re not worried,” said Harty of her squad, which had some communication issues in the backfield throughout the match.
“We’re [dealing with some injuries] so this one doesn’t hurt us as much, but Pingree’s a great team. Having played them now is good, so we’ll have experience for when we play those hard teams.”
One team that’s been a boulder in Beverly’s path as of late has been Peabody, which was ranked No. 1 in the nation at one point last season, fresh off a 2011 state title.
Last fall the Tanners were undefeated in the NEC and 17-2 overall; both losses came against Acton-Boxborough, including a 1-0 double overtime loss in the first round of the playoffs.
But 2013 may be a difficult transition year. Peabody graduated 14 seniors, including the best forward duo in the state.
Peabody strikers Hayley Dowd and Victoria Digiacomo, four-time NEC All-Stars, have moved on to play for Boston College and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, respectively.
Dowd, who scored 204 career points and previously held the NEC single-season goals record with 45, was a “very special, unique talent that comes along maybe once in a coach’s career,” said coach Dennis Desroches, who also praised Digiacomo similarly.
“The loss of Hayley and Victoria up front . . . they were such an impressive combination where they just worked so well together and caused havoc for defenses,” said Desroches, in his seventh year at the helm.
“Without them, we need to find players to carry a scoring load for us.”
He expects captains Caroline Colbert, Caitlin Lodi, and Madison Doherty — the only returning all-star — to help raise a young team to contend.
With only four returning starters, Desroches said there could potentially be five starting freshmen.
“We had a massive freshman class come in,” she said. “We’re very fortunate of that, but we understand that it’s going to take time to develop.”