Stepping Up To The Challenge

By Jeremy McDonald

SALEM, Ore.—Replacing a strong goalkeeper is hard, but West Salem’s Natalie Cunningham found a way her junior year when she replaced Abbey Knoll in net for the Titans Girls Soccer team.

Cunningham and her young defensive backline posted nine shutouts in 12 games during the six-week short-season, carrying over the defensive momentum from their 12-shutouts during Knoll’s senior year back in 2019.  For Cunningham, taking over for a friend was nerve racking, but had settled into the job by the end of the season.

“Patience.  I would say patience and working as hard as you can,” Cunningham said of the lessons learned from the Spring.  “Covid was hard.  Wearing a mask and running is not something that’s easy…I think I did pretty good, our team did well with the Covid season.”

The Titans went 10-1-1 over the course of the short season, their only loss came to South Salem and tying with Corvallis in the process of piecing together a promising season.

Cunningham went to work over the summer, playing with the Eastside Thorns out of the Portland Metro-area; funny enough both Cunningham and Knoll each had played with each other on the Portland Thorns in the past as the now-Senior in Cunningham used the off-season to her advantage in preparation for this year.

Cunningham makes a stop during Friday mornings workout as West Salem closes out the off-season with the first day of try-outs Monday (Picture By Jeremy McDonald)

“Being able to use the summer before going into the season was helpful considering that we weren’t as fit as we should be for Covid.  Covid happens, we didn’t work for the season.  But now that we had a summer, we worked on our fitness and we’re getting there.  We have a good shot at playoffs (this year).”

The season kicks off with the Salem-Keizer Soccer Jamboree on August 27 for the Titans and their first soccer game August 31 hosting Sunset High School to open the Fall schedule.

West Salem Head Coach Benje Orozco is excited to see how Cunningham can do entering this next year after last season, seeing her step up as a leader and continuing that trek this season for the Titans.

“She really stepped into a leadership role where she was very vocal with our defense, very vocal with the team in a positive way,” Orozco said. “I’ve seen Abby play for a long time and I saw Nat step into that role and we didn’t really skip a beat.  She’s a blessing to have, I think any High School program that has a good goal keeper.  The pressure of organizing your defense and having a good defensive scheme with a good goalkeeper is a big relief for any coach.

Orozco pointed towards them having their entire defensive backfield back this season from Cunningham to the defensive line in front of her with another year under their belts with them officially kicking off the season Monday with the first day of try-outs.

Photos By Jeremy McDonald

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