NORTH CALDWELL, NJ — After a season of growth, the West Essex Lady Knights soccer team is eager to take the next step in its development in the 2017 season.

“Every year, we’re bringing more to the table, but this year it seems like we might be going up another step from last year, so I’m really excited for this season,” said West Essex head coach Allison Decker.

Decker, a third-year coach, said she was pleasantly surprised at the team’s commitment to excellence this season after her squad came out of the offseason in shape and ready to work. Citing other conference programs’ “year-round” mentality, Decker said she hopes that her team is finally turning the corner on becoming an elite program.

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“I just think we have more players that are playing club soccer, playing all year round and I think we could definitely surprise some people,” said Decker.

This season, senior captain Maddie Galligan will lead the defensive side for the Lady Knights, looking to blank opposing offenses. Galligan is highly regarded as an intricate piece on the backside of the field for West Essex.

“She’s the backbone of our squad for sure,” said Decker.

Joining Galligan on the defensive unit will be returning juniors Cameron Marino and Hannah McCrone. Both players have been starting since their freshman year and are expected to build upon the chemistry they have formed with Galligan.

“Our defense is pretty locked in,” said Decker.

The defensive unit will protect the net, which will be tended by two goalies expected to split time: senior Danielle Candella and freshman Georgia Tarullo. Candella is expected to see the bulk of the action, given her experience, which includes 29 career saves.

On the attack, sophomore Brooke Schatz is once again on the squad after an impressive freshman campaign. Schatz collected a team-high seven goals last year and added one assist.

“We think that she’ll bring that same level of play this year,” said Decker.

Senior captain Julia Farese will team up with Schatz on the attack, looking to continue providing leadership and grit. According to her coach, Farese is a solid all-around player who has a high motor that pressures opposing defenses and creates turnovers.

“She battles, she’s fast, she’s fit, she’ll just run through a brick wall and get to the ball,” said Decker. “She’ll do whatever she needs to get there.”

In the midfield, senior captain Daria Wendell returns to help transition the offense. Last season, Wendell excelled at the position, notching four assists while orchestrating both offense and defense for the team.

“She is a really talented player who has played on varsity since her freshman year,” said Decker. “She just knows the game and she is kind of like a quarterback for our team.”

Fellow senior Brielle Krause will also head up a group of middies for the Lady Knights.

Krause, much like her defensive counterparts, has played significant time since her freshman year. Last year, she netted three goals for the team out of the midfield position, but is expected to move around the field in 2017 depending on their opponents.

“I can just really put her anywhere because she is just a workhorse,” said Decker.

Currently, the Lady Knights are fine-tuning their schematic approach with the season opener just around the corner. Having a unit with such experience is a benefit for Decker, who is looking to tweak her approach to play to the team’s strengths.

“They’re so interested in learning and they’ve just bought so much into our system,” said Decker. “It’s more about our system of play that I think we’re trying to develop at this point and just figure out who is going to fit where to make it all work.”

As the team has progressed over the last several years, so have the expectations and goals for the program. Decker said she feels as if there’s no legitimate reason why the squad cannot compete with conference powerhouses, but has also set a task to exceed the previous season’s production.

“My goal has always been at least to try to improve our record from the year before,” said Decker. “We try to advance further in the county and state tournament, we try to score more goals from the year before and let in less goals from the year before…If we try to advance farther, and take one day at a time, I think those goals can be achieved.”

West Essex opens its season on Sept. 5 against Glen Rock High School.