OLYMPIA - At times last season, Natalie Daniels was in the shadows of the Bears' best player, Joana Houplin.
But Houplin, the Narrows League MVP and an all-state selection, has graduated. And fortunately for the Bears, it's now Daniels' turn to shine in the spotlight.
So far, so good.
The senior forward/midfielder already has six goals and two assists through three games as the Bears (3-0) prepare for Wednesday's matchup with Capital. Daniels scored a hat trick and had an assist in the 4-1 win over the Cougars on Sept. 6.
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"Each year I've gotten better," Daniels said. "I feel that this year is my year. I'm bigger, stronger and more confident. As a senior, you have the most confidence."
"Natalie is reaching her peak as a player," Olympia coach Tessa Effland said. "Her speed and footwork are better than it has been in the past. I'm excited to see what season she's going to have."
Despite losing 10 seniors to graduation, the Bears aren't in a rebuilding stage. Instead, they're reloading with seven returning starters - including six who were first-team All-Narrows - on a squad which won the Narrows League title. The team advanced to state, but was ousted by Lake Washington 2-1 in the first round, ending its season at 15-2-2. The Bears haven't placed at state since 2004 and preparing for a strong run at the state tournament begins with each regular-
season game, according to Effland.
"The pressure of every game is the same," said Effland, who begins her seventh year at Olympia. "I tell them to play like you always do, no matter the game."
"The girls are mature to handle the pressure and I want to make sure they have that pressure each game," Effland said. "I hope we can get over that hurdle."
With a couple of new faces on the varsity squad, Olympia switched to a 3-5-2 attack on the field, which is a more effective attack on offense and protects the defense. It's a formation the team has adjusted well to early on, learning to work and feed off each other.
"It makes us do better defensively as it allows us to create more offense," Daniels said. "Everyone works so well together."
All-state goalkeeper Hana Klimek anchors a Bears defensive which returns all five of its starters. Klimek, a senior, already has two shutouts in three games has only given up one goal. She only surrendered eight goals in 19 games in 2006.
"Hana has set high expectations for herself," Effland said. "They (Klimek and Daniels) are great role models. They understand playing for Olympia High School is great because you wear blue and white.
The Bears might have an advantage in the always tough Narrows League, which Effland said is high scoring, compared to other leagues. Bellarmine Prep and Gig Harbor look to be a few teams to battle with Olympia for the top spot in the Narrows League.
"I think we're going to be right up there with everyone," Effland said. "We definitely don't have the luxury to come in and start slow. We have to come in and play 80 minutes of strong soccer."
"It's all about going out there and having more confidence knowing we can win," Daniels said. "We are going to do some good things this year."
Players to watch in South Sound:
Natalie Daniels, Olympia, F/MF, senior
Shaina Thompson, Timberline, M, senior
Brit Bowman, Shelton, F/M, senior
Jena Russell, Capital, F, senior
Rachel Clark, Capital, D, senior
Hana Klimek, Olympia, GK, senior
Aundreaha Martinez, Tumwater, M, senior
Kathleen McGee, Black Hills, F/M, senior
Brandy Orgill, Tumwater, F, senior
Sara Tallman, River Ridge, D, senior