Belle Vernon girls soccer coach Tom Cameron likes to hand out nicknames. Some stick better than others.
Jillian Butchki was dubbed “Peanut,” and Isabella Laurita became “Jitterbug” during the early stages of their freshman seasons. Their nicknames stuck, and the pair, who have played soccer together since they were 5, call the other by nickname on the field.
Butchki and Laurita also could be called two of the better sophomore players in the WPIAL. As freshmen, they combined for 31 goals — 16 for Butchki, 15 for Laurita — as secondary scoring options to Lexi Demko (23 goals). Demko graduated, and Butchki and Laurita enter this season with big goals.
“I’m going for 30 or 40 (goals),” Laurita said, smirking as she looked at Butchki.
“Honestly, I’ll be happy if I score a few more than last year,” Butchki said.
Don’t be surprised if Laurita hits her lofty goal-scoring goal, and if Butchki realizes her expectations because Belle Vernon, which finished 12-5-1 overall last season and second in Section 2-3A with a 9-2-1 mark, is making changes under Cameron, a coaching veteran in his second season with the Leopards.
“Last year was status quo,” Cameron said. “This year, we’re changing formation, attitude. We have the makings of a very good team, but we’re not there, yet.”
Belle Vernon will utilize three defenders in hopes of creating more attacking chances for Butchki, a competitive dancer, and Laurita, who plays Cup soccer for the Riverhounds Academy.
For the formation change to work, the Leopards need strong defensive play, and Cameron expects juniors Marissa Grubbs, Autumn Forte and Kaitlyn Hrycko and freshman Adeline Guess to play the bulk of defensive minutes in front of sophomore goaltender Grace Henderson.
“Playing three in the back gives our forwards more flexibility,” Cameron said. “We have to do the little things right if we’re going to win our section. Elizabeth Forward and Ringgold should be good, but we have great faith in our defense that we can pull this off. We want to pressure, so those back three will have to do what they have to do.”
Belle Vernon won seven of its final nine games (one draw) to end the 2017 regular season, but the Leopards’ hopes ended with a 6-1 loss to Ambridge in the first round of the playoffs. It’s been a common theme in recent years. Belle Vernon last missed the postseason in 2002, but in those 15 consecutive playoff appearances, only once (2012) did the team win more than one game and advance to the PIAA tournament.
The Leopards hope an improving section that includes Albert Gallatin, Elizabeth Forward, Greensburg Salem, Laurel Highlands, Ringgold and Uniontown helps prepare them for a 16th straight playoff berth and a deeper run.
“We all need to work together and keep fighting, especially when we’re against good competition,” Laurita said. “Ringgold coming in adds a lot, and they’re a big rival for us.”
No doubt “Peanut” and “Jitterbug” are ready to work together.
“We’ve played together for so long that we constantly know what the other one is going to do,” Butchki said. “We know when to make a run and when to pass to each other. It’s definitely easier with her out there.”
Mike Kovak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mike at [email protected] or via Twitter @MKovak_Trib.