The central defense partnership of Gretchen Kuffel and Piper Stone has met with an unexpected, and unfortunate, early end.
This duo was in its third year as the core of the Shadow Ridge girls soccer back four. The Stallions took part in the Chandler Prep Winter Classic over break and started with a game against Chandler Basha.
“We were playing Basha and I got the ball in defense and I had room. So I took it up, made a couple passes and I was going to go in to take a shot. But then their goalie came out and their defender came out and they both landed on top of me. My wrist broke,” Kuffel said.
Kuffel will miss the rest of her senior soccer season, though she still has track to look forward to.
Stone has faced the biggest adjustment in the five games since Kuffel’s injury. Since their sophomore year, both players knew what to expect out of each other.
“It’s been pretty hard because as soon as Gretchen and I played together, we instantly clicked, especially in high school. Playing with anyone else, I’ve never clicked with anyone like that. Trying to adjust has kind of been hard,” Stone said.
Both central defenders, along with classmate Cassie Sheerin, a midfielder, started since their freshman year. And with the Shadow Ridge program and nearby neighborhoods growing, the young players were on the radar of coach John Gray before they stepped foot on campus.
Kuffel and Stone started playing soccer at age 6 and first played together in eighth grade.
“Piper I knew for sure because one of our football coaches teaches at one of the elementary schools. He was like, ‘Hey this girl’s really good.’ Then she came by for future freshman night and was wearing her ODP sweatshirt,” Gray said. “There’s not a lot of surprises coming into the program with the things we’re doing in the summer and stuff like that.”
Stone immediately settled in the middle of the defense. Kuffel was playing right wing, which was not a natural position.
Kuffel said she discovered she was good at the back, and then-junior Jordan Lafferty helped spark her.
“I love playing defense now. I actually played in club as a defender and never got credit for anything. If one goal got scored on us there was tons of blame so I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want to play in high school at all,’” Kuffel said. “Once I got pushed back there, Jordan Lafferty was celebrating me and I got a lot of good comments. So I realized it was actually fun.”
By the 2017-18 the sophomores were set at the back and the Stallions program was ready for a leap. Shadow Ridge beat Willow Canyon for the first time and knocked off Tucson Flowing Wells in a play-in game to reach the main 5A bracket for the first time.
After that playoff loss to Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep, the last game of Lafferty’s high school career, she gave Kuffel her captain’s badge.
Stone said she also looked up to Lafferty, as well as another star player that was not even on the Shadow Ridge roster that year.
“Rachel Young was a leader from the time we met her. She wasn’t playing one year because she was playing (club). Even though she wasn’t playing, she still came to everything and still supported the team. When she did play in her last year she brought a whole new level to the team. She pushed us hard while still keeping the friendship and atmosphere we needed,” Stone said.
Young took the reins along with fellow senior midfielder Hailey Myers as Shadow Ridge moved up to 6A in 2018-19. Once again, the program had its best season to date.
The Stallions finished 18-4, knocked off Liberty and gave Chandler Hamilton a fight in the first round before some late goals gave the Huskies a 4-1 win.
“We want to get our name out there. The playoffs last year against Hamilton? That was a big team and I think we got the Shadow Ridge name out there,” Kuffel said.
Despite stepping up in competition, the defense set a program record for fewest goals allowed, with 18.
Kuffel and Stone were the central reason for the Stallions stingy nature.
“They’ve got speed and ballhandling skills. Last year we gave up the fewest goals we’ve ever allowed. That’s a tribute to them and the two sophomores I’ve got back there with them. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. We’re right there in the same boat this year. I don’t know that we’ll get lower but we’ll be close,” Gray said.
The Stallions season has been similar record-wise this winter, except for different losses. Shadow Ridge avenged defeats to Boulder Creek and Mesa Westwood, but had the tables turned on them by Liberty and Queen Creek.
Kuffel’s injury came in a breakthrough tournament win against Basha. Shadow Ridge lost to the Bears in a shootout last year, and beat them 1-0 this year.
Once again the team is a heavy favorite in the Southwest Region. But bigger and more established East Valley programs await in the playoffs.
Right now, Shadow Ridge is ranked No. 15. Gray would like to move up a couple spots to lessen the chance of a first round meeting with a powerhouse like Gilbert schools Highland and Perry.
“We know it gets harder when we get to playoffs. That’s when there’s all of the teams — not just our area,” Stone said.
More than likely, Stone’s final Shadow Ridge game will be her last competitive game of soccer. Injuries marred her first two years of high school play.
“It’s been hard to keep wanting to play at the next level,” Stone said.
She said she wants to study marketing in college.
Kuffel’s career ended early. She said she plans to concentrate on cross country and track at college, most likely Fort Hays State in Kansas.
She wants to study tourism and hospitality management in college. Kuffel has not written off soccer, however.
“Gretchen is always coming to me with different ideas, books and things. They always do stuff like that with the cross country coach. They bring a lot of ideas on the field and off,” Gray said.
That approach might be expected from an athletic director’s kid. Her father, Matthew, has led Shadow Ridge sports for years.
It makes for a different high school experience, but in general Gretchen Kuffel has enjoyed her four years.
“A lot of people think it’s pretty easy. It’s not. You can’t get away with anything. There’s a lot of high expectations for being a leader. It’s stressful but my dad supports me,” Kuffel said.