The progression of the Seneca girls' soccer program had been steady - up until this year. That is when gradual improvement turned into consistent winning.
In only the fifth year of the program, this was a breakout year for the Golden Eagles. Coach Ron Jensen, who had been with the program since its inception, guided Seneca to an 18-5-1 record and its first South Jersey title.
For leading Seneca to the South Jersey Group 3 championship and playing one of the most competitive schedules in the area, Jensen has been named The Inquirer's South Jersey girls' soccer coach of the year.
Nobody is talking about Seneca being a new school anymore. Actually, Seneca never really acted like a new program.
The Golden Eagles began as a junior varsity program in 2003, then had their first varsity season in 2004. Seneca never won fewer than six games and had reached the Group 3 tournament by its third season.
Following a 10-6-4 mark in 2007, Jensen sensed that this could be a special season for the Golden Eagles.
"I knew coming into the season we could have a good team because we had so many coming back and a lot of talented players," Jensen said. "This is a team in which the core played together in the club season, and that was a big help."
So was the guidance of Jensen.
With 15 seniors on the team, including eight starters, he had to set roles for everybody and take advantage of his team's experience and depth.
Seneca was among the most balanced teams. Senior Melanie Wittenberger was the leading scorer with 11 goals.
The Golden Eagles often didn't have much margin for error, and in many cases it wasn't needed. Seneca went 7-3 in one-goal games.
Two of those one-goal losses came to state champions, Lenape and Bishop Eustace, the only two teams ahead of No. 3 Seneca in the final Inquirer South Jersey Top 10.
Three of the five losses were to state champions; they were 0-1-1 against Eustace and 0-2 against Lenape.
A fourth loss came against Olympic Conference National Division foe Paul VI, a team that Seneca also beat twice. And the other loss was 1-0 to Freehold Boro in the state Group 3 semifinal.
This was a loaded schedule, but Jensen wanted to play the difficult competition, realizing it would prepare the Golden Eagles for the rigors of the state tournament.
"We had the attitude that we would play anybody," Jensen said.
The biggest win came in the South Jersey Group 3 semifinal against top-seeded Moorestown, the defending champion. Seeded fifth, the Golden Eagles scored a 2-1 double overtime win on goals by junior Katie O'Keefe and senior Jessica McQuillen.
"Not to take anything away from the other bracket, but I felt we were the two best teams in the field," said Jensen, whose team beat Lacey Township, 1-0, in the South Jersey final. "I felt our schedule prepared us for a game like that and coming back from a goal down and then going into overtime, it was a heck of a game whether we won or lost."
Of course, he has a better feeling since the Golden Eagles won.
Jensen is a soccer lifer and a 1990 graduate of Edgewood, now Winslow Township, where he played goalie.
He said that none of the success would have occurred without assistants Jacklyn Ford, Tracy Vitale and Kathy Donoghue.
Jensen added that another key has been the relationship his program has established with the local youth teams.
"We wanted a program with a good foundation, and we wanted a good connection with youth leagues in our area, and I think it's paying dividends," Jensen said.