Littleton High School girls aim high in soccer

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As the second-smallest school in the Continental League, Littleton has a built-in disadvantage. And it didn't help in the larger scheme when the school was bumped up from Class 4A to 5A.

The Lions' girls soccer team is a good example that school size matters. Longtime coach Terry Banfield produced back-to-back 4A semifinalists, but Littleton hasn't advanced to the playoffs since 2006.

Still, Banfield believes his teams have acquitted themselves well in the Continental League, and this might be the year the Lions get back to the 5A postseason. The Lions shut out their first four opponents before bowing 1-0 to Highlands Ranch in the league opener. The March 22 match with Regis Jesuit was snowed out and, off this week for spring break, the Lions won't play again until April 2.

“This is our best team since 2006,'' Banfield said. “I think we've done very well (in 5A). We're often in the middle of the pack (in the Continental League) and a lot of times we play above ourselves. I think when teams play us, they'll know they've been in a game.

“We haven't qualified for the playoffs for a while. But if we can get a little run, I think we've got a chance.''

Banfield isn't surprised by his team's good start. The Lions return nine starters, six of them seniors, from a team that went 7-8 overall and 4-7 in the Continental League. The highlight was “a big win'' over Dakota Ridge, 3-0 in the season opener. The Eagles, he noted, “have been one of the top teams in the Jeffco'' and were the 2011 state runners-up, though they have struggled since then.

In the loss to Highlands Ranch, Littleton played without No. 1 goalkeeper Shayna Watkins, a sophomore who won the job from junior Natalie Scheunert after the two shared duties in front of the net in 2012. The Falcons outshot the Lions 9-8.

The returning seniors include all-leaguers Lindsey Payson and Lanie Sumlin. Payson, a midfielder who had eight goals and four assists last year, is 3-3 for a team-leading nine points. Sumlin, a midfielder/forward, has struggled a bit scoring, with one goal in five games after going 8-4 in 2012.

Sophomore Laura Puchino, who had three goals last year, has four in 2013, and senior Rachel Ericson has three goals and two assists.

Watkins has 15 saves in her four shutouts.

“We've moved Lindsey up a little more so she's closer to the goal,'' Banfield said of Payson, a midfielder. “(Ericson) is a good kid who works so hard. She's a tremendous role model for the younger players.''

Banfield has also made a similar adjustment for Puchino, the leading scorer on the basketball team. “We're trying to get the ball to her and she's been finishing,'' he said.

Banfield has also been pleased with the play of midfielder Julie Stauffer and sophomore defender/midfielder Carli Murray.

Banfield is aware that following the 4-0 non-league start, the schedule doesn't get easier with the start of Continental play. The league gets four automatic state qualifiers, and Banfield thinks the Lions might have a chance to sneak in, or perhaps nail down an at-large berth.

“Mountain Vista's going to be way above everybody,'' Banfield said. “Rock Canyon will be up there and Chaparral is pretty decent. After that there is a group that is very similar that we'll be battling for points. I think we'll be in the mix.''

Banfield is certain of one thing: His team won't back down to anyone.

“I think we have an atmosphere that you do your best no matter what,'' Banfield said. “We don't dwell on things. We dust if off, and here's the next one. We have a very hard-working, athletic group that's very focused and determined.''