Playoff push for Long Beach

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For a moment the Long Beach girls’ soccer team looked invulnerable. A talent infusion this summer had given the Lady Marines new options, new swagger, and a whole new approach to the game – with junior forward Emily Atchison, a former midfielder, freed up from defensive duties and pushed out front to lead a rocket-fueled Long Beach offense that boosted the team to a 3-0 start.

Then a rash of injuries yanked the Lady Marines (7-1-1 in Conference AB-5) back to earth.

In a battle of unbeatens Sept. 17, Long Beach – suddenly missing three key defenders, including junior center back Skyler Cantrambone (ankle) – lost on the road, 7-3, to league nemesis Great Neck South (6-2-1), which got five goals from standout junior Kristina Garcia.

The early-season loss was sobering. But in a season defined by adaptation, the game marked yet another fortuitous turning point for Long Beach, as junior Gia Simbari came on replacing Cantrambone, prompting coach Michael Santoro to switch defensive schemes – from the usual flat four to a stopper-sweeper alignment – a move that when further developed would later provide the antidote to Garcia, as Long Beach got revenge Oct. 2 with a 4-2 win against the visiting Rebels to seize sole possession of first place in league.

“Their player, Garica, is legit; she found a weakness and exploited it,” Santoro said. “But by the next time we played [against GNS], Gia had become this incredible stopper, so that was a better result.”

While digging in on defense for the must-win rematch, Long Beach also saw its star striker rise to the occasion, with Atchison (No. 1 in AB-5 with 14 goals) turning in her second hat trick of the season, to go with an insurance tally from surprise breakout eighth-grader Rylee Roberts (seven goals, two assists), who began the season as a backup defender and wound up winning the job at second forward by happy accident.

Explained Santoro: “Rylee got hurt playing club ball over the weekend, so she could only play 10 minutes a game and she asked if she could play offense. I put her in against Hewlett [Oct. 7] and she immediately scored two goals. Pretty soon we had a new starting lineup.”

Roberts’ improbable emergence came after Long Beach began its campaign transformed by the impact of another underclassman, ninth-grade midfielder Samantha Kolb (five goals, seven assists), whose arrival permitted Atchison’s move to offense, where the AB-5 points leader (19, tied with Garica) has found her proper home, alongside senior midfielder Catherine Conway, who leads the league with nine assists and is second on the team with eight goals.

“I’ve never had so much talent on one team,” said Santoro, whose club – which followed its downing of GNS with wins over Glen Cove and Hewlett – has an inside track, but likely must win its three remaining regular-season contests to return to the playoffs after missing last year’s postseason following a prefect league showing in 2017. “These girls want to make a push. It’s going to be fun.”