As she recovered from a broken pelvic bone that robbed her of her sophomore season, Natalie Flahive of the Olentangy Liberty High School girls soccer team doubled as a sponge.
The junior forward studied the game like never before, hoping she could fully show her potential in her final two seasons after also missing some of her freshman year because of a torn lateral meniscus in her left knee.
"I was watching the game rather than playing, and I felt like I was learning a lot," Flahive said. "I came out this year ready to contribute. I have great people to work with. So far, this has been awesome."
Flahive's eight goals entering a Sept. 10 game at Marysville helped the Patriots to starts of 5-0-1 overall and 2-0 in the OCC-Central Division. A plethora of returnees, including senior midfielder Julia Bruno, junior midfielders Elizabeth Castro, Emma Ranalli and Kylie Slusser, junior goalkeeper Miranda Kuhns and senior backup goalie Sam Carney, are back from last year's team that finished 9-7-2 overall and 5-2 in the OCC-Central, and lost to Worthington Kilbourne 2-1 in a Division I district semifinal.
"We're on the right track to have a really successful season," third-year coach Lisa Saiben said. "Having Natalie fully healthy was going to be key. We have the core of our team now, our key players, our juniors and seniors. With them, we knew we could have a lot of success."
Liberty's wins entering the week were against Westerville North (3-1 on Aug. 20), Central Crossing (13-0 on Aug. 27), Gahanna (4-1 on Aug. 31), Upper Arlington (6-0 on Sept. 3) and Orange (3-0 on Sept. 7).
The Patriots' tie, 1-all at Worthington Christian on Aug. 22, was in a game called because of darkness.
"We talked before the season about 'I' becoming 'we,' and we've really done that," said Ranalli, a three-year starter who scored against Orange. "I like to get involved where I can. If the team needs me to be dangerous on the attack, I'll do it."
Saiben pointed to the midfield, which also includes seniors Danielle Prezioso and Leah Sagle, juniors Lauren Fertig, Katie Kill and Kalen Weissinger and freshmen Sarina Dirrig and Emma Koshan, as a strength.
"The midfield connects really well," said Bruno, a Miami University recruit who also plays forward. "Everybody can read each other really well, so we definitely help the forwards connect and the defense connect."
Other forwards include sophomores Jordan Fike and Hailey Pickelheimer. Defenders include seniors Emma Hall, Elizabeth Peyton and Erin Walters, juniors Katie Best and Hayley Hickman and sophomore Emma Waters.
Sophomore midfielder/def-ender Lexy Fisher is out with an injury.
Flahive said the Patriots largely have adjusted to a 4-5-1 formation, with her acting as the primary forward up top.
"It took a little while to get into the hang of it and figure out what runs we need to make," Flahive said. "Once we got the hang of it, we started to finish and work together much better."
Pioneers' play 'all over the place'
Despite early season inconsistency, the Orange girls picked their spots as far as wins were concerned.
The Pioneers started OCC-Capital play 3-0 for the first time in their six-season history, defeating defending league champion New Albany 4-2 on Aug. 27, Olentangy 3-0 on Sept. 3 and Mount Vernon 3-2 on Sept. 9.
Orange improved to 5-3 overall by defeating Mount Vernon. After a 2-0 start, the Pioneers alternated wins and losses in each of their next six games.
"It's been all over the place," coach Jen Odebrecht said after the loss to Liberty on Sept. 7. "We've definitely had a lot of success, but we have a very talented team. Nights like (the Liberty game) are rough. Liberty is without a question the best team we've seen, and you can see that in their speed of play and how quickly they win the ball and find their speed up top."
Senior midfielder Emily Burton had six goals through seven games to lead the Pioneers. Seven other players had one goal each, and junior goalkeeper Mackenzie Brunke had stopped 24 of 32 shots on goal.
"I feel very strongly that the best is still ahead for my team," Odebrecht said. "Our lineup is changing on a game-to-game basis and we still are finding our personality. But the talent is there and the depth is there. We're just trying to find that place where we consistently have good chemistry."
Braves in long stretch without games
Coming off three consecutive losses after a 2-0 start, the Olentangy girls are in the midst of a 12-day break from games.
The Braves, who are 2-3-1 overall and 1-1 in the OCC-Capital, do not play again until visiting New Albany on Tuesday, Sept. 17. That begins a stretch of five games in 12 days.
Olentangy originally was scheduled to play Franklin Heights in a league game Sept. 10, but the Falcons do not have a team this year.
Through six games, junior forwards Morgan McCullough and Payton Naylor and junior midfielder Abby Schwing had three goals apiece to share the team scoring lead. Sophomore goalkeeper Kelsey Hill is averaging 11 saves per game.