The Urbana High School girls soccer team hit a low point during it’s 4-0 loss to Middletown in the regular season finale at a seemingly inopportune time, Hawks coach Chuck Nichols said.
“It was 45 degrees and raining torrentially, we had two concussions and we lost [freshman midfielder/forward] Katie Garza for the rest of the season [with a knee injury],” Nichols said. “After we took the girls home to Urbana I spent an hour in the emergency room with Katie.”
If the defending Class 3A West Region champion and 2011 state finalist Hawks were going to make another postseason run, they needed to turn things around quickly.
Though Saturday’s 2-1, state semifinal loss to Harford County’s C. Milton Wright ended the 2007 state champion Urbana’s hopes of another state crown, the Hawks showed great resiliency this postseason.
An inconsistent regular season thanks to a number of injuries to key players, including leading scorer Samie Abernethy (11 goals), High Point University recruit Jenny Marshall (seven goals, seven assists) and Jenn Heflin (12 assists), left Urbana outside the region’s top four seeds.
But the Hawks, which had graduated nine players in 2011, found their stride in postseason and upset three of the top four en route to their seventh region title.
Heflin, who now will undergo surgery to repair damaged ligaments in her ankle, connected with Marshall for Urbana’s goal in the state semifinal.
“I’m more than satisfied [with this year’s result],” Nichols said. “Knowing the losses we had, we fought injury all throughout the first part of the season which led to some inconsistent play and some tough losses, I’m thrilled with how we finished the season.”
On opposite ends of the field but at the center of Urbana’s unexpected postseason resurgence were two sisters, second-year junior goalkeeper Natasja Hirabayashi and freshman striker Gaelin Hirabayashi.
Three months ago the younger Hirabayashi feared she wasn’t good enough to make the Hawks junior varsity squad.
“In the summer I knew I wasn’t that good of a striker, my shot was terrible. I’m sure my sister got annoyed because I took her out [to practice] so much but she was always there to help and I appreciate it,” Gaelin said.
The younger Hirabayashi showed no signs of said “terrible shot” this fall. In fact, Nichols said the freshman has great instincts around the frame.
Three of her five goals were game-winners, including one in the Hawks’ 1-0, region semifinal win against top-seeded Tuscarora.
“It was amazing to see [Gaelin do so well]. Honestly, it’s an amazing feeling. I’m proud of anyone on the team who pulls herself together but the fact that she is my little sister, it’s so great,” Natasja said.
She isn’t the only Hirabayashi with sisterly pride.
Gaelin said she hates watching opposing strikers shoot at her sister but is amazed at her range and ferocity with which she stands up for herself in the box.
Natasja weathered a storm of on-frame shots from one of the Frederick County’s best strikers, Tuscarora senior Aaran Parry in the region semifinal to keep the Hawks alive.
Though she tallied 10 shutouts as Urbana’s surprise starting goalkeeper last fall, 2012 was a breakout season for the elder Hirabayashi after Urbana lost nearly it’s entire back line.
“I’d seen Natasja play basketball her freshman year and she was so competitive and athletic. The night before last season started last year I called her [and asked if she would consider being our back-up keeper]. By the time our preseason was over, she was starting,” Nichols said. “She is one of the most efficient keepers we’ve had. Her instincts are incredible, she has great reaction time. The way she comes off her line so aggressively, that is a hard thing for high school keepers to do.”
Urbana graduates 10 more seniors this year but after the Hirabayshi sisters’ breakout season, Nichols said the Hawks are in good hands.
“If you’re a quality program, one that year in and year out is in the hunt for a conference, region and state championship, you have to have quality and experienced players right up the [middle],” Nichols said. “The last game of our season was a real low point. We had to look to one another and turn things around. I’m absolutely amazed with the resiliency of this team.”