CLARK, NJ-  The Arthur L. Johnson High School Crusaders girls varsity soccer team began their preseason by working on several parts of the game including ball handling, running drills, passing and ball control.

As the 2017 season gets underway, a new voice will be leading the way for the Crusaders. Ken Leeder was named the new girls soccer head coach during the June 13, 2017 Board of Education meeting.

“I think it’ll be a good season. They had a lot of success in previous years and were well-coached,” Leeder said. “So far, we have some really good talent we’re turning. The kids are working hard over the summer, so it’ll be nice to get as far as they have the last couple of years.”

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Leeder replaces Meredith Peitz, who stepped down after five seasons at the helm of the Johnson girls’ varsity soccer team.

Assistant coaches Raymond Bueno and Chris Cabaan will join the staff. In addition, Samantha Rodrigues, a 2013 ALJ graduate who continued her soccer career at Stockton University, is returning to her alma mater. She will be the junior varsity head coach for the upcoming season.

“I’m looking forward to bringing my love for the game and playing into coaching,” Rodrigues said. “I loved playing for Johnson and I feel like I bleed blue. I’m proud to be an assistant coach and I’m excited for the season.”

This year’s seniors include Danielle Hartzler, Brooke Vaccaro, Tina Palella, Nicole Cassano and Samantha Ianco.

The major holes for the team to fill in from 2016 include Deserae Sequeira, Tatiana Nieto, Jess Gannon, Cristina Casimiro, Joycie Bolona and goaltender Meaghan Gallagher, who all graduated last year.

“We have pretty big shoes to fill this season,” Hartzler said. “[The seniors last year] were incredible. Throughout our four years, the seniors were all really good with leading the team. They were all amazing role models to us.”

“I think now as seniors, me and the other girls need to really step it up and take that role,” she added. “It’s a new everything. We have a new head coach, new freshmen coming in and the new system we have to adapt to.”

Palella returns to the team after playing volleyball in the 2016 fall sports season. She will be the starting goaltender for the upcoming season, replacing Gallagher.

“I realized my teammates needed someone confident in the net and I felt like I could be a reliable person in the net,” Palella said. “Sometimes it's difficult and stressful, but I am willing to step up to make things easier for my teammates.”

Last year, the Crusaders finished with a 16-4 record, playing without key players at points of last season.

Junior Nicole Buczynski, one of the key players from last year’s team, suffered a season-ending knee injury in a game against Governor Livingston High School in September of 2016.

“It was really hard,” Buczynski said. “It took me ten months fully to get back on the field. It took a lot of dedication and hard work, but it feels good to be back and the first game that I was back [for my club soccer team], there’s no greater feeling than that. It was so awesome.”

Other key players returning for Johnson include juniors Cecelia Puentes (nine goals, nine assists), Natayla Torres (four goals, seven assists) and Kylee Zawacki.

“In the past years, we had some really strong players and this year, we don’t have them [all graduated],” Puentes said. “I think that just means the rising juniors and seniors have to step up as leaders of the team and really work hard and together.”

The Crusaders started out with a 3-0 record before their first loss of the season and overcame an early exit from the Union County Tournament, a 2-0 loss to Rahway in the first round to finish strong.

A five-game winning streak powered Johnson to the Union County Conference Valley Division championship, along with clinching the No. 1 seed in last year’s NJSIAA Central, Group 2 playoffs.

Johnson ousted Delaware Valley High School in the state sectional first round 4-0 and defeated Voorhees High School in the state sectional quarterfinals 4-1.

Their season ended with a 2-1 loss in the sectional semifinals against Robbinsville High School, where the game-winning goal was scored in the final 80 seconds of play, a memory that leaves the girls motivated as they prepare for the upcoming season.

“It’s definitely a bounce-back season, more like a comeback season, not just for me, but for all of us,” junior Nicole Buczynski said. “We definitely want revenge [after the sectional semifinals loss to Robbinsville]. We definitely want to come back and win it all.”

The 2017 season kicks off for the Johnson girls’ soccer team on September 7, in their home opener against Elizabeth High School, scheduled to begin at 4:00 p.m.

“We have to make adjustments as a team and I think our job this year is to get everyone through the transition of having new coaches and a new system. Once we do that and everything gels together, I’m super-confident that we’ll be successful,” Hartzler said.

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