MIDDLETOWN, N.J. - Last season was a magical ride to remember for the Middletown North girls soccer team, setting a single season program-record with 21 wins and winning the NJSIAA North 2, Group 3 championship.

Fast-forward to now with the 2019 fall season just around the corner, the Lions are ecstatic to be back playing soccer and are ready to defend their title.

“We’re just excited to get back playing again,” said Middletown North girls soccer coach Patricia Misciagna. “The girls were excited all summer working out. You can feel the energy carrying over from last year.”

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Despite graduating 10 seniors from last year’s sectional championship team, Middletown North has a solid core of players coming back this fall, led by senior Darien Rinn.

Rinn is coming off a breakout 2018 campaign for Middletown North, where she earned all-conference and all-state honors by leading the Lions with 20 goals scored, including one in the sectional championship win over Cranford.

Knowing she has some big shoes to fill with departures of Lindsay O’Keefe, Kaleigh Harmon and Casey Bogues, Rinn has used her hard working attitude this offseason to help raise her game to the next level to lead the Lions to hopefully a deep run in the state tournament. 

Another area Rinn is taking seriously this season for the Lions is leadership, making it a goal for herself to help bring the younger players on the team along to help Middletown North not skip a beat this season.

“Being a senior, I’m holding my head up and leading the team, especially for the new girls who did not experience the sectional title,” Rinn said. “ Just lead them into the same feeling and mindset from our team last year. Team bonding is the most important thing. On the field, everyone needs to be connected. It can help a team go a long way.”

Returning alongside Rinn up top to help lead the way offensively for Middletown North this season will be junior Ashley Dietrich.

In her first year at Middletown North, Dietrich showcased her scoring abilities big time by knocking in 12 goals to rank second on the year in scoring. Dietrich’s shining moment last season came in the sectional championship when she scored a game-high two goals to help the Lions claim its first sectional title in 13 years.

Putting last season on the back burner, Dietrich is focused on helping the Lions have the same success this fall.

“I think we can definitely win another sectional championship if we keep working hard,” Dietrich said. “Working hard at practices and even forgetting what we did last year and focusing on this season is going to help us get better.”

The best has yet to come for Dietrich in the eyes of Misciagna, who believes the junior is primed for a bigger and better season this fall.

Senior Katelyn Reid returns for Middletown North and will join Rinn and Dietrich on the front line after scoring six goals last season.

Both Allie O’Keefe and Taylor Dorney come back to solidify the midfield for the Lions. O’Keefe finished with four goals and seven assists in her sophomore campaign for Middletown North last fall.

On the back line, Carly Binn is back for her third year on varsity to anchor the Middletown North defense with senior Hayley Stratton returning as well to help beef up the back end. Stratton will also contribute offensively for the Lions, scoring two goals from the team last season. 

“We have a good core of returners back who will continue to improve from last season,” Misciagna said. “They’ve had the experience of playing in big games and getting results last season and have stepped up as leaders this season to help the newer players learn what is expected of them.”

As for newcomers to watch out for this season, sophomore Alyssa Imbriale is expected to join the attack and contribute well offensively for Middletown North.

Julia Iasparro will flank Binn and Stratton on the back line after getting some experience last season as a sophomore.

The biggest change for Middletown North this fall will be in net with junior Ellie Kacen stepping in as the team’s new starting goalie.

Kacen replaces Haley Martin who had a fantastic senior season for Middletown North in goal with 153 saves and 10 shutouts to help the Lions win a sectional title.

With big shoes to fill in net, Misciagna believes Kacen will be up to the challenge.

“(Ellie) has been doing a great job in net this preseason,” Misciagna said. “She’s very athletic. She got to train with Haley (Martin) last year and learn from her, so she’s had some great examples in front of her to learn from.”

Middletown North will have a target on its back with being defending sectional champions, but that won’t phase the team in anyway Misciagna believes.

After the great success of last season, Misciagna feels the team knows they have the ability to have a successful season and build off what they were able to accomplish last fall with a sectional championship.

“Most of our players know from last year’s run that we’re going to get everyone's best shot,” Misciagna said. “We want to build off last season. Having that success, our team knows it can do it. It’d be great to have another successful season.” 

Middletown North will open up the season at home against Long Branch on September 5th.

Follow Steven Bassin on Twitter @SBassin_Sports