Junior midfielder Nicole Huang, a third-year varsity player, will spearhead Crescent Valley's attack. (Photo by Norm Maves Jr.)
Junior midfielder Nicole Huang, a third-year varsity player, will spearhead Crescent Valley's attack. (Photo by Norm Maves Jr.)

All things being normal, Crescent Valley's girls soccer team would be talking about defending a state championship in the run-up to the season.

But it's been so long since the Raiders won 5A titles in 2018 and 2019, and so much has changed, that coach Blake Leamy is keeping a lid on such talk for now.

“This group, I haven't wanted to put that pressure on them yet,” Leamy said. “We haven't really talked about it. I think that's a huge weight, and probably 70 percent of the kids are new to the program over those two years.”

The Raiders were unable to go for a three-peat in the spring due to the COVID-19 shortened season, which they finished 7-2-2, and now must move forward after losing a stellar graduating class.

Three players moved on to college programs in defender Jada Foster (Western Oregon), midfielder Val Lending (Illinois Tech) and goalkeeper Anna Wilson (Pratt Institute), and another will play college basketball in forward Ana McClave (Western Oregon).

“All those kids were pretty instrumental with both state championships teams,” Leamy said. “For us, that's a pretty big loss. We lost a lot of big personalities, those personalities that win state championships. They were real servant leaders.”

Still, winning is in the DNA of the Raiders, who made the 5A semifinals in 2016 and 2017 before earning their first state championships. Crescent Valley is No. 2 in the OSAAtoday 5A preseason coaches poll, behind Wilsonville, the team it defeated 1-0 on penalty kicks in the 2019 final.

Leamy, entering his seventh season as coach, said he believes the team is capable of making a playoff run.

“We should be right in there again,” he said. “We're going to be a little bit young, and we'll probably grow as the year goes along. We tend to finish pretty strong, so that's what we're looking for this year, as well.”

Crescent Valley has an outstanding midfielder in junior Nicole Huang, who is entering her third varsity season. She will play alongside senior Juliah Lyon, a member of the 2019 title team.

The team's potentially explosive front line features senior Meredith Merten, junior Abby Smith and promising freshman Hirut Denver. The Raiders also have a pair of sophomore defenders that started in the spring in Sophia Merten and Maegan Cooper.

“We have a very good attack,” Leamy said. “Our defense is going to be young and a little inexperienced.”

Much of the attack will go through Huang at midfield.

“She's going to be a big part of what we do,” Leamy said. “She's very athletic, but also just really astute. She has this ability to take in info and apply it right away.”

The addition of Denver will add a new dimension to the team's offense.

“She can play anywhere up the middle of the field,” Leamy said. “I'm going to see what holes we have and where she might fit best. I'm really excited about her. She's going to score a lot of goals for us over the course of the next four years. She's very, very good.”

The Raiders will need their young defenders to mature quickly to help cover for the loss of Foster.

“You don't replace her,” Leamy said. “She's really a Division I athlete. I'm surprised D-I programs didn't go after her.”

Crosstown rival Corvallis and West Albany – ranked third and seventh in the coaches poll, respectively – present hurdles for Crescent Valley in the Mid-Willamette Conference. Deep Corvallis is loaded with talent.

“They have a lot more to pull on,” Leamy said of the Spartans. “I think they're the league favorites.”

The Raiders won't begin conference play until Sept. 28. They will spend their six-game nonleague schedule trying to re-establish their winning identity.

“I've talked to a lot of coaches, and they're not necessarily struggling, they're just trying to get back into a rhythm,” Leamy said. “A lot of people have lost a lot of players that just decided not to come back and play. We've been pretty fortunate that a lot of people that didn't play last year have come back.”