Smyrna girls’ soccer team set for test vs. mighty Padua today

“I think it’s a great opportunity to play better teams, make ourselves better and hopefully rise to the challenge,” said junior Casey Bell, left, about playing powerful Padua today. “it would definitely make it more fun if we compete and make it hard on them.” (Delaware State News file photo)

“I think it’s a great opportunity to play better teams, make ourselves better and hopefully rise to the challenge,” said junior Casey Bell, left, about playing powerful Padua today. “it would definitely make it more fun if we compete and make it hard on them.” (Delaware State News file photo)

SMYRNA — Ryan Buchanan broke the news to his players last spring.

That’s when the Smyrna High girls’ soccer coach told the Eagles that state powerhouse Padua was on their 2016 schedule.

“I just remember being really surprised,” said Smyrna junior Casey Bell, “that their coach picked us out and was like, ‘We want to play them because we think it will be a good game.’ It made us think, ‘Well, we can do this.’”

Of course, the real test will come today at 6 p.m. when Smyrna (4-1) hosts the four-time defending Division I state champion Pandas (8-0).

Nobody has beaten Padua in two years. The Pandas come to town with a 31-game unbeaten streak since falling to Wilmington Charter on May 12, 2014.

But whether or not they can actually beat Padua isn’t really the point of the matchup for the Eagles.

After making the Division I state tourney in five of the last seven years, Smyrna would like to think it’s a perennial tournament contender now.

And if the Eagles are ever going to start advancing in the tourney, they’re going to have to face the best competition around.

That’s where Padua, with its seven state crowns since 2006, comes in. It’ll be the first time the two programs have met.

“If we’re getting into the tournament beating people 8-0 and not really even being tested. …,” said Buchanan. “We’ll be more tested. If you want to play with the best you’ve got to play them. Obviously there’s some nervousness, some anxiety about it.”

“It’s definitely nerve-wracking going against a team that’s so good,” said sophomore goalie Cassidy Cook. “But it’ll be a fun test for us to see where we are for the season.”

“I think it’s a great opportunity to play better teams, make ourselves better and hopefully rise to the challenge,” said Bell, who plays on the same travel team as some of the Pandas. “We always want to have fun, so that’s given. But it would definitely make it more fun if we compete and make it hard on them.”

Just the fact that Smyrna is still winning this season despite a young roster says a lot about the program. The Eagles have only three seniors compared to six sophomores and a freshman.

There are seven first-year varsity players on the roster. Bell, Cook, sophomore Marissa McClenton and junior Kylie Womer are the only returning starters — and only Cook and McClenton are starting in the same positions.

“We’re all learning together,” said McClenton. “We help each along. We lost a lot of seniors but we had a lot of players that proved they could come up to varsity. I’ve been optimistic since the beginning.”

“It’s a lot of fun, especially since we know we still have a few more years to go,” said Cook. “We can work together and work out some kinks we have so we can keep getting better and better every day. You can see the players maturing and getting better. It’s just fun to watch.”

Over the past season and a third, the Eagles are 17-4 with their only losses coming against Caesar Rodney (twice), Sussex Tech and Indian River.

Smyrna, though, showed its youth when it was downed by CR, 8-0, in a Henlopen Conference North matchup on April 7. But Buchanan made a few changes and Smyrna has bounced back with a pair of wins.

“It bothered us,” Buchanan said about the margin of the loss to the Riders. “But it’s all about learning. The team really came together and talked about pride and playing for each other. We don’t care what the score it, if we’re not playing for each other, it’s not going to be good.

“Whatever we do, you’re not doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for the girl next to you.”

“We realized that the way we played at CR wasn’t typical Smyrna ball,” said McClenton. “We had moments of, ‘This isn’t us.’ When we looked back on it, we were like, ‘That’s not going to happen again.’ We became closer as a team because we went through that. We know how it felt and we’re not going to feel it again.”

“We know we can do better,” said Bell, who has a team-high eight goals. “We push each other and we always want to make each other better. We want to be able to compete with the top teams in the state. Just knowing that, if we did that, it’d be huge.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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