Uncertainty surrounded Squalicum's new-look defense entering the 2013 high school girls' soccer season.
Squalicum was just a year removed from making its first state tournament in 10 years thanks in large part to a defense that recorded 11 shutouts en route to a final-four finish. Keying the groups stout play were two first-team Northwest Conference standouts, Lauren Wallace and Andrea DeVere, both of whom graduated leaving voids that needed to be filled.
Simply put, Storm coach David Kish didn't know what he had in his two replacements, junior Payton McNally and sophomore Rachel Dorr. The fact that neither had any varsity experience at the center-back positions is all but lost now after the Storm's defense surrendered just 11 goals in 21 games, recording 13 shutouts in the process.
"It's pretty amazing," said Kish of McNally's and Dorr's development. "We have two really strong girls in the center of the field that are working really well together."
Squalicum will face city rival Bellingham in the Class 2A State Girls' Soccer Championship semifinals at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 22, at Shoreline Stadium in Shoreline to decide which team advances to play for the state title game, which will be played Saturday.
Kish had his concerns entering the season. Namely, he wanted to see whether or not McNally and Dorr would be able to compensate for the loss of Wallace's presence.
"Lauren was so vocal last year," Kish said. "You take her out of that picture, and somebody needs to fill the communication void because she talked all the time."
Dorr was a starter on varsity last year as a freshman, albeit at the outside-back position, and McNally had yet to play a full year on varsity after spending much of her first two years recovering from a knee injury. Their new positions demanded that the two be vocal leaders on the field and they responded accordingly.
"We've played together before, so we kind of know how each other plays," McNally said. "That made it easier when we got into this role to kind of understand what we were doing and how to work well together."
Despite losing two first-team defenders, that didn't affect the team's goals at the onset of the season. It was still to make a return trip to the final four, something McNally said contributed some early-season jitters the group had to confront.
Squalicum's opening game against Sehome offered a perplexing start to the new unit's season. The Storm lost to the Mariners 4-3 - its only loss of the regular season - but the four goals the Storm allowed were deceiving, Kish said.
"The Marie (Kochman) goal that won it was special for her. ... But the other ones were nothing," Kish said. "They were preventable goals, and that was what the girls needed to focus on."
The methodical Squalicum team handled it just as it did everything else this season - quickly. Practices following the opening-season loss focused on communication, McNally said, but not just between the defensive players.
"It pushed us not to just communicate throughout the defense, but the defense with the midfield and the midfield with the forwards," she said.
With Wallace and DeVere anchoring the back line, miscommunications were a rarity, McNally added.
"Lauren was a senior, so you know everybody trusts her immediately," McNally said. "And then it's like, 'New people coming in. Do we really trust them?'"
Aiding in the transition from a senior-laden backfield to a more inexperienced one was the presence of three-year starter Jackie Dierdorff. Dierdorff, one of the two outside backs, provided a sense of stability Kish needed early in the season as the unit navigated the somewhat-turbulent start.
The defense has largely found its stride of late, having not allowed a single goal since Oct. 17.
Squalicum has only given up one goal to Bellingham in two games this season, and with a state championship berth on the line, past success against the Red Raiders is certainly something the unit hopes to replicate.
Reach Alex Bigelow at email@example.com or call 360-715-2238. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for other Whatcom County sports news.