CEDAR GROVE — It’s extremely rare that a varsity soccer team is young with 16 underclassmen, but still exceedingly experienced. But the 2017 Cedar Grove girls’ soccer team is just that, as the Panthers remain a young bunch, but carry a special amount of experience as expectations are sky-high for the upcoming soccer season. 

A team that will be returning nine starters from last year, Cedar Grove took the initiative this offseason to put in more work than they ever have to ensure 2017 will be a year to remember. From competing in an indoor league against top New Jersey teams, to summer workouts at the High School field, to playing in a Nike ID national camp at Villanova University, the Lady Panthers have developed powerful chemistry and sharpened their toughness, which head coach Mike Moussab knows will be vital his team’s success.

“This is the first year where my girls went from the end of last season, worked in the offseason during the winter indoors, and then picked up as soon as the spring season ended out here on the turf. They were running a mile every day, working on their touches, and really getting the team chemistry,” said coach Moussab, entering his second year as head coach of Cedar Grove. “Our biggest focus has been our toughness, and I knew that was going to be the key.”

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While its own toughness will be stronger, toughness is what other teams will have trying to guard Cedar Grove this fall. That's because the Panthers will boast an offense that will be a force to be reckoned with. 

Last year’s leading goal scorer, Jaime Dente, is a major reason for that. Regarded as one of the county's most elite strikers, Dente netted a staggering 18 goals and recorded seven assists in 2016, had five games where she scored two or more goals and even won a TAPintoVCG Athlete of the Week.

Oh, and she was just a freshman. 

“I’m so excited for the season. This team is like my life and it’s so exciting to be on this team,” Dente said, reflecting on the new season.

Dente will likely be the player that opposition keys on when they play Cedar Grove. While she may have flown under the radar as a freshman last year, all of Essex County is aware of Jaime Dente this year and will be defending her with their A-game defense. 

“I would like to say I’ll get each team’s best competition, and I hope I do,” the sophomore said.

As a result, the Panthers will need to rely heavily on other goal-scorers, including second-leading scorer Lindsay Sickinger, to put the ball in the net as well. 

“Jaime Dente is no secret anymore,” Moussab said. “She’s definitely someone teams are keying on this year, so we need help from Lindsay Sickinger and Jaime’s younger sister, Kasey. We’re looking to them to step up this year so when teams take away Jaime, those two should be getting the goals.”

Giving the offense opportunities will be the defense, which is where most of this team's leadership will come form. Katie Sickinger and Grace Brolly, the teams' only seniors, are both defenders entering their fourth year on varsity. As the elder stateswomen of the team, Brolly and Sickinger will be looked upon as leaders of the team. 

“I’m trying to be a good leader of the team. It’s my last year so I want to come out strong. I definitely want us to all come together, be one big team,” said Brolly.

She also credited the team’s bonding as a reason for improved communication, which will help Cedar Grove: “We do a lot of team bonding outside of the practices themselves. We’ll just hang out together non-soccer related and it really brings us together, helps with communication, which is an especially big thing”

“Katie and Grace are doing a great job as senior leaders,” said coach Moussab. “Expectations are high this year; even though we’re still young, we have a lot of experience and they’re doing a good job of pushing them and making sure they’re ready for the year.”

Midfield will also be a strong suit for the Panthers. Led by Gabby Statile and Gabby Silletti, the mid has strength in number. Caroline Fielding, Katelyn Downs and Lexys Caputo will also hold down midfield for Cedar Grove. 

“Gabby Statile played that center mid spot last year for us, so we’re expecting her to come back and take control of the game again from the midfield position. Gabby Silletti was playing the outside last year; now she’s moved to the inside, a little different. Her touches have to be quicker, a lot cleaner — but she’s ready for it,” Moussab said. “Figure a sophomore and junior there this year, we now have experience in that center mid spot.”

Goalie will be the only position where the Panthers feel the true effects of losing a starter. Shannon Burke, who recorded a massive 173 saves a year ago and 586 in her four-year varsity career at Cedar Grove, graduated. That opened up the keeper position which freshman Carlene Topoleski will assume. 

“Kid is fearless. Comes off the line, has great hands, and just has that natural toughness from playing other sports — she’s a basketball player also,” said Moussab. “We’re not treating her as a freshman — we’re treating her as the varsity goalie.”

Topolski won’t be the only freshman treated as a varsity player. The Panthers have eight freshmen vying for playing time this season — a number that is seldom seen at the varsity level. 

Coach Moussab spoke confidently of his frosh players: “The one thing I keep telling them is: They’re not freshmen — they’re varsity. You can’t come in here expecting to play like a freshman and make a difference. We’re expecting a lot of things from them this year to step up and play like varsity, not freshmen.”

With that youth but also experience, Cedar Grove begins the season when the whistle blows Opening Day, Sept. 9 in Belleville — one of the largest school’s they’ll play. The home opener is Sept. 12 against East Orange. The game fans are looking forward to is on Sept. 22, when the Panthers square off against cross-town rival Verona.