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When the St. Helena girls’ soccer team travels to Middletown on Tuesday to take on the behemoths of the North Central I League, they have to prepare for not only an uber-prolific scoring machine, but a stout defense that has allowed 0.6 goals per game.

And then there is the field.

Middletown’s field is, dare I say it, notorious. Sure, it’s a tough place to play because the Mustangs are nearly unstoppable there – they are 23-2-4 in head coach Lamont Kucer’s three years. But also because the grass is a bit rough and the crown on the field is so severe 6-foot-5 Zlatan Ibrahimovic could be standing on the far sideline and you might not see him.

And the Mustangs? Well, the Mustangs love it.

“We are used to our field and we are better at home for sure. And we are better on grass for sure,” Kucer said. “Home field advantage is big for us.”

But don’t get the wrong idea. Middletown isn’t going for its 11th straight NCLI title and haven’t played to an 18-2-1 overall record and 11-0-1 tally this season because they play well at home. They play well period.

Sophomore Sophie Kucer has 29 goals this season. In 22 games.

With numbers like that it’s not like other teams don’t know she’s coming. And still she scores.

“She’s very good at creating space,” Lamont Kucer, Sophie’s dad and coach, said.

And apparently pretty good at finishing, too.

But despite their offensive prowess, Middletown could not break through against St. Helena when the two league-leaders met in St. Helena on Sept. 20. The game ended in a 0-0 tie.

“We certainly had some good looks at goal and we just couldn’t get it to fall,” Kucer said. “Playing St. Helena there, on that turf field, it gets us every time. It’s a completely different environment.”

And the Saints might have had something to do with it, too.

“Some teams kind of get in your head a little bit,” Kucer said. “They are in our heads when we are down there.”

The Saints have put together a 9-2-4 overall record and are 9-0-3 in league. In addition to Middletown, the Saints have tied Fort Bragg 1-1 in Fort Bragg and Cloverdale 2-2 at home.

But Saints coach Tash Bunge likes where his team is now. They played a strong Technology High team to a 1-0 loss on the road, then dispatched Fort Bragg 4-1 and Willits 2-0 in the three games leading up to today.

“We are rejuvenated,” he said. “I think we are better than our record.”

Some injuries and lineup tinkering will put a different look on the field than they started with when they last played Middletown.

Elliott Dunham, listed as a forward on the roster but who is now the Saints’ starting goalkeeper after senior captain Blayney Adamson went down with a knee injury at midseason, now has nine games under her belt.

“Elliott Dunham has (done) incredibly well in goal,” Bunge said.

And senior Citali Garcia has been the Saints’ rock on defense.

“She is the anchor of the team,” Bunge said. “She just calms people down.”

And the Saints will need to be calm and composed when facing a Middletown offense that averages nearly four goals per game.

In addition to Kucer, Middletown has a goal scorer in Kassi Agapoff who has found the net 13 times despite regularly playing defense.

“Kassi is a very physical player. She likes contact,” Kucer said.

And if and when a game gets tight, Agapoff asks to play defense, Kucer said.

“If she thinks someone is killing our back line, she’ll say ‘Put me back. Put me back,’” he said.

Rare is it for someone to kill the Mustangs’ back line, though. Injury has forced Kucer to mix up his starting goalkeeper roles, but Leslie Chairez has taken over capably for early starter Hanna Morris, he said.

“I have complete faith in Leslie,” he said.

Remember, the Mustangs have given up just 13 goals in 22 games.

The defensive back line of junior Abby Sabater, sophomore Olivia Kucer, and seniors Alyssa Hart and Kelsey Lemoine are locking down opponents.

And if the name Kelsey Lemoine rings a bell, it’s because she posted some of the fastest sprint times in the Redwood Empire last spring in track.

“She’s the fastest kid in the county,” Kucer said.

So Lemoine and company will have to keep an eye on the Saints’ tandem of juniors Marylu Avina and Emma Fife. Avina has eight goals on the season. Sophomore Cydney Adamson has five goals and sophomore Tina Almanza has five.

There is a lot of youth in the Saints’ lineup. Bunge knows that bodes well for the program in the future, but he likes the way his squad is playing now.

“St. Helena is in a golden age right now,” Bunge said.

Still, he’s realistic about the challenges Middletown presents – especially on their home field.

“They are the reigning champions and they have a real strong confidence and I think they should,” he said. “But I think we match up with them really well.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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