The Pope John Paul II girls soccer team is currently enjoying its best start in program history. An 8-0-1 record with a goal-differential of plus-29, including six shutouts, has the Lady Knights thinking big picture.
Notable wins include Oakland, BGA and Clarksville. Their lone tie with Ravenwood was later described as a “missed opportunity.”
“We expect to win state,” said senior Ava Priest. “We work hard enough to say that.”
The Lady Knights feature just four seniors - Priest, Ninah Mertens, Natalie Mertens and Mary G. Foulke - and aside from the nine juniors, most of the roster is comprised of 17 underclassmen.
One freshman in particular, Katie Shae Collins, stands out from the rest.
In her first varsity game against White House Heritage, Collins found the back of the net four times and has since scored five more goals in three games, leaving many wondering if she could be Middle Tennessee’s next soccer phenom.
Collins boasts an already-impressive resumé, including stints with Tennessee Soccer Club, Tampa Bay Elite Clubs National League, Olympic Developmental Regular III League (2018-20), Olympic Developmental National Camp (2019-20), Olympic Development National Team (2020), National Training Center (2019-20) and the International Futures Champions Cup Tournament (2019).
Did the team view Collins as a typical freshman?
“Definitely not,” said the senior trio of Priest and Ninah and Natalie Mertens.
Collins has dreams of attending one of the top Division I college soccer programs and eventually making it as far as the Olympics. JPII coach Zack Trobaugh said he thinks those goals are attainable.
“All of (Collins’) recognition comes from her hard work,” he said. “Many kids are athletic, including her, but what truly separates you is the work you put in, and her training is the difference. She understands athleticism will only take you so far and that she needs to work for those goals. The sky's the limit for her if that is what she wants.”
Sometimes freshman integration can be challenging for a team, but not for the Lady Knights. A selfless attitude built over years of culture change has allowed a “seamless transition” for one of the program’s best young players.
“She is the missing puzzle piece,” Priest said of Collins. “It’s like she has always been here. It’s not just Katie, we are getting better players, and you see that in the growth of the program. We are playing more as a team because of the mix of young and old players. It is exciting to see it grow.”
When the Class of 2021 entered high school three seasons ago, the program wasn’t in the best shape. Instead of state championship aspirations, goals were more along the lines of playing .500 soccer.
The improvement over four years has been remarkable for Trobaugh and company.
After posting a combined record of 8-19-2 in 2017 and 2018, the Lady Knights won 10 games in 2019, the most since winning 11 in 2011.
The program took the turn from hoping to win to expecting to win midway through last season following a 2-1 win over Harpeth Hall on Sept. 19.
“That win gave us a lot of confidence because we never beat them,” Ninah Mertens said. “That was our turning point.”
After beating Baylor in the first round of the DII-AA playoffs, the Lady Knights’ season ended in the state quarterfinals to eventual runner-up GPS. That disappointment fuels the team to accomplish more.
“We put the work in and make sure we hold one another accountable,” said Natalie Mertens. “If we want to get to where we know we can go, we need to be more polished from the start of the game. Consistency is our big emphasis right now.”
Even though she is only a freshman, Collins will be counted on to lead this team. Whether it’s up top, in the middle or on the defensive side of the pitch, she is ready to do whatever her team needs and expects of her this season.
“I want to be the best, but I want to make our team the best,” Collins said. “We have worked our butts off to get here. I want (us) to continue to build confidence in ourselves.”
Trobaugh said the addition of Collins has been one reason for the team’s improvement over last season.
“Her work ethic is different,” he said. “She doesn’t depend on just being quick and fast with the ball; she works on her technical game too. She brings a lot to this group. I think she is the best player, but I think she has a great team around her. She could never do it alone, and they all understand that. You see how much she means to the other girls and how much they mean to her. They trust each other fully. That is what makes it so special.
As for his team’s confidence regarding a state championship run, Trobaugh said he won’t sugarcoat the work that goes into obtaining that goal.
“It doesn’t surprise me when they say those things, but I explain to them there is only one team that can do that, so if you’re going to say that, then you better make sure you are working harder than anyone else throughout the state,” he said. “Four years ago, that wasn’t in our thoughts — it’s exciting to hear how far we’ve come.”
9/24: at Father Ryan, 7pm
9/25: vs. St. Cecilia, 6pm
9/29: at Harpeth Hall, 6pm
10/1: vs. Brentwood Academy, 6pm
10/8: vs. USN, 6pm
10/17: TSSAA First Round