JFK handled, overcame early adversity

Two games into the season, the John F. Kennedy girls soccer team had to make a coaching switch.

Cara Russo-Gatta, the coach going into the season, was beloved by her players, but she left her spot at the helm of the team because of her pregnancy, forcing the players to adjust to a new coach for the rest of the season.

Considering the lack of a preseason for the players with their new coach, it’s a tough situation, but it’s also a difficult job for said coach to try to lead the team. If any person could find any sort of success with the Eagles, Rob Merlo might have been the only one to do so.

Merlo, who coached the Niles boys team for about 10 years, took the interim head coaching job before the team’s third match, and as Kennedy’s regular season has come to an end, the Eagles take a 10-6 record in the tournament, where they are the third seed in the Division III Kent district.

Three matches into his reign, however, things didn’t look so good for the Eagles, as Kennedy recorded three straight losses. Kennedy recovered, however, going 9-2 over its final 11 matches – the two losses coming against Hickory (Pa.) and Cardinal Mooney.

What made Merlo so successful?

Well, he had experience coaching 11 of the 17 girls on the roster when they were members of the Warren Eagles Soccer Club from fifth to eighth grade, but one of the biggest reasons is he didn’t drastically change the team’s philosophy despite the fact he differs from Russo-Gatta in his point of emphasis.

“It was no trouble at all to take over for (Russo-Gatta) because she had the girls playing good soccer,” Merlo said. “I’m more of a defensive-minded coach, so if anything that we changed, maybe a little tweak here and there on our defense, but overall, it was a seamless transition.”

Aiding in the transition was the help of seven seniors, including co-captain Natalie Hoso. The senior forward tied for the team lead in goals with 13 during the regular season and finished second in points (29) behind fellow co-captain and forward Nicole Rodomsky (13 goals, 10 assists for 36 points).

During the tough stretch early in the season, Hoso said she tried to keep the morale high and the team upbeat.

“To help the transition, I just try to keep the team super positive,” Hoso said. “We loved our old coach, and Rob is a great fill-in. It was a hard switch, but I really tried to keep the team positive, tried to keep everything going smoothly and keep everyone focused.”

Heading into the tournament, the Eagles are excited about sending the seniors off on the right note. While a 4-1 win over Maplewood in the team’s regular-season finale is a good start, they know they have some things to work on before facing Lordstown or Maplewood in the sectional finals on Oct. 17.

Still, with all the circumstances at the beginning of the season, the Eagles have already accomplished a lot.

“We really pulled everything together,” Hoso said. “We had a few losses that were really close. We worked really hard, and they should have been wins, but right now, I’m so proud of us, and with the situation in our coaching, I think we did really well this season. I’m really excited for the playoffs.”