Emma Riley

Plano East senior Emma Riley and the Lady Panthers are seeking their first playoff appearance since 2008.

DALLAS — The Plano East girls soccer team will look to the leadership and experience of a senior core that has been largely intact for four years on varsity to help navigate what projects to be one of the most challenging districts in the state.

The big question for the Lady Panthers, at least early on, is just when all those veterans will be able to take the pitch together.

East kicked off its 2021 campaign on Thursday against Mansfield Legacy as part of a tournament played at Highland Park — a match the Lady Panthers played minus five starters, according to head coach Cristy Cooley.

She attributed the absences to a mix of injuries and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, more so the former with players busy in club season as well. Cooley is well aware of the looming issues the virus could cause this season, however, and learning how to operate shorthanded is part of handling those challenges.

“We’re trying to find out what’s the best combination of players and how we can play without starters, because it could happen any given day in district,” Cooley said. “So if we can figure it out now, it’ll help us in the long run.”

The season is still young, but Cooley saw a winnable match slip away for her Lady Panthers on Thursday in a 2-1 loss to Legacy. Despite East largely controlling possession and creating more shot attempts than the Lady Broncos, Legacy capitalized on a pair of sporadic counterattacks to seize the win.

East started strong with a goal from senior Emma Riley in the 13th minute but was overtaken by Legacy in the 73rd minute following a defensive breakdown that left a Lady Bronco unmarked in the box. The Lady Panthers rebounded with a draw against Mansfield Lake Ridge on Friday, 2-2, and a 2-1 victory over Bishop Lynch on Saturday.

Among the absences for the Lady Panthers were seniors Landrey Krodel and Alexa Pivnick — two of East’s more established offensive threats. Krodel, notably, was named co-forward of the year in 9-6A last season.

That puts more of an onus players like Riley, senior Angel Shamba and senior Rachel Moore to steady the the Lady Panthers’ offense, with Cooley estimating that her team might not be at full strength until the start of district.

“We have 12 seniors and they just need to lead but also help us learn how to win. In those scenarios, they need to be putting that ball in no matter what,” Cooley said. “It doesn’t need to be pretty, it can be as ugly as you want it to be, but as long as they’re running to the ball they’re got to figure out how to get it in the goal. 

“We shouldn’t be happy walking away with this loss, but this taught us a lot with the group we do have.”

Cooley likes the chemistry of her current bunch, something forged through years of varsity experience together. She noted that communication has to improve, though, as she and the Lady Panthers have taken a goal-centric approach to structuring their season.

“Each game, we’re giving them a personal goal and a team goal. They have to decide what the team goal is before they come and then we evaluate if we met that goal and if we didn’t, why not,” Cooley said.

The coach also noted the importance of taking its 2021 season one game at a time, something heightened by playing in a district that had four teams nationally ranked throughout the 2020 season by TopDrawerSoccer.com (Flower Mound, Marcus, Coppell and Hebron). The Lady Panthers, mired in a decade-plus playoff drought, kick off their 6-6A schedule on Jan. 26 against Hebron.

“We’re not going to look ahead. We have to look at what we need to fix from point A to point B. We need to go one game at a time, and I think they’ll do a good job with that,” Cooley said.

For continued news and coverage on the local sports scene, follow Matt Welch on Twitter.

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