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Grace Bernardi, Julia Hannon lead Massapequa soccer youth movement

Massapequa's Grace Bernardi, left, defends South Side's Ally

Massapequa's Grace Bernardi, left, defends South Side's Ally Diez during a game at John J. Burns Park on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Credit: Richard T. Slattery

Grace Bernardi and Julia Hannon are only six games into their varsity girls soccer careers, but the two Massapequa freshmen are already making their presence known.

Their presence marks the first time two freshmen have played as center midfielders at the same time under coach Bruce Stegner, who is in his eighth season as a head coach.

The pair's connection also goes beyond their high school's midfield. They've been playing together since they were nine years old.

"We've developed a sense of knowing each other's strengths and weaknesses on the field," said Bernardi, who played with Hannon on the Massapequa Cosmos travel team. "It's nice to know someone who you can relate to and have the same experiences on this team."

That connection was evident to Stegner, who saw the players trying out for the high school's ninth-grade team and invited them to go for varsity. He said they both have speed, defensive skills and an understanding of soccer that surpasses many ninth graders. Hannon said it had a lot to do with their early start.

"It developed our technical skills and our movement on and off the ball at a very early age," Hannon said.

Center midfielders are responsible for moving the ball forward on offense and falling back to help defend. It can be one of the most important positions on the field, but Hannon and Bernardi haven't had trouble adapting the skill level of older players around them. Through Friday, Hannon had scored five goals with four assists and Bernardi had scored twice with an assist for the5-1 Chiefs.

Both players said the biggest challenge they've faced on their new team is the physicality of playing against older players, but it hasn't become overwhelming. They've drawn on past experiences from different teams to prepare.

Hannon has been called up twice to the U.S. National Team's under-15 team, where she plays defense, and Bernardi has played on Region-I U.S. Youth Soccer squads.

"I have a ton of experience and it really helps my midfield position," Hannon said. "It really helps on this varsity level and being physical with older girls."

Together, they're trying to win Massapequa's third straight Long Island Class AA championship. If the team, which lost its first game of the season Thursday, manages to accomplish that, there would likely be two fresh faces helping it get there.

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