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Long Beach cranks up offense

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Seizing an opportunity afforded by a windfall of young talent, the Long Beach girls’ soccer team has switched gears to go on the attack.

Off to a 3-0 start as new members of the winner-take-all Conference AB-5, the Lady Marines are not looking back after going all in on a strategy shift derived from the arrival of ninth-grade midfielder Samantha Kolb, whose precocious play has enabled coach Michael Santoro to reallocate resources, unleashing midfielder-turned-striker Emily Atchison (junior), the conference’s second-leading scorer with six goals.

“We’ve always been a defensive-minded team; that’s the Long Beach way,” said third-year skipper Santoro. “For the first time since I’ve been here, we’re a possession team now, not just playing kick-and-chase. That’s new.”

Atchison acclimated instantly to her new role, opening the season with a hat trick in Long Beach’s 5-0 home win against Glen Cove Sept. 10, while Kolb (two goals, four assists on the season) likewise has dispensed with any kind of learning curve at midfield. “Emily just puts herself in good position and she’s lighting it up,” said Santoro, whose team went 4-5-3 last season in Conference AA-2, missing the playoffs a year after going unbeaten in AA-3. “Sam Kolb has brought so much skill and speed that we’re now able to move Emily up top as a goal-scorer, which is the one piece we were missing last year.”

What definitely wasn’t missing last year for Long Beach is top-notch, veteran goaltending, as then-junior Sage Bernstein posted a league-leading 117 saves. The All-Conference senior has been true to form – allowing 0.66 goals per game, with two shutouts – in this, her fourth season starting on varsity. “Sage sees the whole field and is communicating the entire game,” Santoro said of the second-year Lady Marines captain. “She’s always building up her teammates. And she’ll run through a post to make a save.”

Senior Catherine Conway (three goals, four assists) has been a catalyst at center midfield, guiding a youthful corps that includes outside midfielders Sophia Roa (freshman) and Samantha Addeo (sophomore). “[Catherine] helps it all fit and work together,” Santoro said. “The way these girls work with each other, you’d think they’ve been together for years. Teams are having difficulty stopping this five-pointed attack we now have.”

Though offense is now the order of the day, the Lady Marines haven’t let defense fall by the wayside, as defenders Skyler Cantrambone (junior), Valentina Escobar (junior), and Natalia Hakimzadeh (sophomore) have adapted to the team’s new freewheeling style while staying staunch in the backfield. “These girls are shutting teams down,” Santoro said. “The difference now is we don’t just immediately kick it away; we’re finding our midfielders.”

While eager to rebound from last year’s slide and carry a league title into the playoffs, Long Beach has additional motivation this season, having dedicated its campaign to the memory of a beloved former teammate, Santoro said. “We want to make a playoff run,” said the coach. “But more important, the girls are playing like family. It’s beautiful soccer.”