It’s all in the family: Vail Mountain girls soccer looks to add to strong tradition as 3A state playoffs begin

Vail Mountain School is the No. 4 seed in the 3A state tournament, which starts on Thursday.
Ella Towle/Courtesy photo

The idea of family is a common thread within many successful teams’ testimonies. For the 2022 Vail Mountain School girls soccer team, it belongs for more than one reason.

“Our bond is so strong,” said senior Gabby Gish, one of two sets of twins — her sister Emily, plus Liv and Kjersti Moritz are the other — on a Gore Rangers team that outscored opponents 79-22 en route to a 13-2 regular season record. The No. 4 seed starts its bid for another state title Thursday at home against No. 29 Severance.

“I do think there is a chemistry; there’s a synergy there that is partly the result of a core group of players playing together for a long time, but I think that over-simplifies that,” said long-time head coach Bob Bandoni.

“More than that, they seem to thrive in a certain style of play.”

His “possession-style of play” naturally profiles what he highlights as a “collectively generous group, both on offense and defense.”

“I think knowing each other for so long — on and off the field — contributes to that style of play: Wanting the ball, wanting possession, and wanting everybody involved when we’re attacking and when we’re defending,” he continued.

“When we work together and get stuff done, it’s such a rewarding feeling,” Emily Gish added. The way the senior sees it, athletes’ mutual endeavor to fulfill their peek potential turns the team’s proverbial wheel. After reaching the state semifinals in 2021, the goal is to take the next step this spring. It will undoubtedly require building upon the team’s tradition of corporate improvement.

Sydney Smith makes a pass in a game early in the season. VMS enters the 3A state playoffs with a 13-2 record.
Ella Towle/Courtesy photo

“I think that’s kind of the gist of our whole team — we all like to see progression. Which is why we keep getting better and better,” said Kjersti.

The avid Alpine racer personally knows it was the gist of the team before she arrived, too.

Sammy Gish, Gabby and Emily’s older sister, was a freshman on the 2016 team that repeated as state champions. The program’s rich culture has grown as each generation flows through, keeping tabs on players and games.

“Since we’re so small, we’re still in touch with so many of our previous players,” Liv, whose dad also played for Bandoni at VMS, said.

“So, it’s not just playing for our current team, it’s playing for everyone whose played for VMS in the past. It’s really special because everyone stays in contact and they look us up every season.”

Tess Johnson, 2018 Olympian, a four-year player, came back to kick it with the girls this spring.

“They have a spectacular team this year,” Johnson said.

“A bunch of really talented, hard-working young women. It’s really cool to see how the VMS soccer culture hasn’t changed a bit — if anything, it’s gotten better.”

Emily Gish launches a corner kick in a game early in the season.
Amy Gish/Courtesy photo

“There’s a culture and a sense of pride and ownership in that and a sense of responsibility of standing on the values and expectations that have been built over years and years and years,” said Bandoni, who started the soccer program back in the 80s while working as an assistant headmaster at the school. He occasionally points out which alumnae wore certain numbers during practice.

“There’s a sense of responsibility that not only the team has to itself but it has to the program and its history,” he said.

“There are a number of different fundamental principles and basic expectations we have of ourselves individually and collectively that identify who we are, and that identification has been building over years and years.”

Void of a single standout, VMS has leaned into its passing, spacing and chemistry. “We’re super connected,” said Kjersti, who denies any “twin telepathy.”

“It’s just another layer of competition you have,” Liv said of the sibling synapse.

“I feel like it’s really unrelatable if you’re not a twin just because everyone is comparing you. You’re the faster one or the stronger one, but I think it really helps us get better. It is, I would consider, an advantage, even though it has some challenges. It’s really easy to know what each other’s thinking.”

While the intimate familial competitiveness sometimes boils over on the field, having two sets of twins provides moments of lighthearted understanding as well.

“Gabby and I can giggle when the Moritz twins get mad at each other because we can relate to it,” said Emily.

At practice, a quiet competitiveness fuels improvement.

We’re very competitive — with each other, too,” Kjersti said of the whole team.

“Usually when one person tries to get really into it, everyones’ levels rise, so we’re trying to outplay each other and it gets really fun,” added Emily.

Her twin continued, “I feel like when you try to be your best self, it brings other people to try and be their best selves, and our goal is to just be better than we were before and keep rising to the occasion.”

An integral aspect to those practices — which has grown into its own inside joke — are Bandoni’s handmade drills.

Frankie Marston has provided eight shutouts in 15 games for VMS.
Ella Towle/Courtesy photo

“He’ll come up with this drill and everyone will just be so confused,” described Emily of the often highly intricate multi-dimensional activities. An avid Premiere League watcher, the analytical Bandoni’s honesty with players is respected and well-received, built on a foundation of trust and a time-honed soccer I.Q.

“It’s easy to take criticism from him,” said Kjersti.

“He’s really good at working with the needs of the team,” added Liv.

Those drills, as complicated as they can be, intentionally and effectively incorporate game-specific aspects in need of addressing.

“He looks at the previous game and uses what we need to work on in a drill,” said Gabby.

“(The coaches) have really put into our minds that we should always be better than we were the day before. I feel like you can take that onto life no matter where you go or what you do. You can always work to be better than your past self.”

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Vail Mountain School soccer players celebrate after a goal in a 5-0 win over Battle Mountain earlier this year.
Ella Towle/Courtesy photo

For the most part, VMS has rolled through its schedule. Coming off of spring break, however, they received refinement by fire, falling to Eagle Valley 5-4 in an overtime loss in which they led by two goals late in regulation.

“I think it was good for us because we were kind of on a high and it knocked us down,” Gabby said.

“That game showed us all of our weaknesses that we really needed to become aware of,” added Liv

Their next game was a 3-2 overtime win over previously No. 1 ranked Jefferson Academy. Bandoni believed the game battle-tested his athletes. His seniors agreed.

“I think it helped us rebuild what we had,” said Gabby.

A leadership group keeps fitness and cohesion high throughout the year, though its warranting is almost precluded by the team’s innate unity.

Liv Moritz goes to work in a game against Battle Mountain, which VMS won 5-0, earlier this season.
Ella Towle/Courtesy photo

“Everyone on our team knows how to lead in different ways,” said Emily.

“The culture of our team is we’re all one mind,” added her sister, noting that the junior varsity and varsity squads practice and play together.

After last season’s final loss, 2022’s goal came into focus.

“I feel like as soon as we lost semis, we were like ‘next year is our year,’” proclaimed Liv.

“I think we can have more confidence than last year,” her sister chimed in.

No. 1 Kent Denver stands above the rest of the 3A field, but the Gore Rangers like their chances. After all, they’ve got each other — and they stand on the shoulders of giants.

“I think they’re the next iteration — they’re an extension of what was before them,” said Bandoni.

“In a very compelling way, they are building on past teams’ development. So, I think if you look at them in some ways, they’re doing very much what past teams have done, and I think they’ve brought the level up in a way that kind of reflects overall development.”

For Emily, one more program tradition has stoked the playoff flames.

“That transition from blue and white to orange and white is really fueling for me,” she said of the notorious postseason jersey swap.

The Gore Rangers will host their first three playoff games — provided they keep winning — before heading to UCCS Mountain Lion Stadium for the state semifinals on May 19. In a small school, on a small team, the weight of watching four years whiz by means only one chance remains to properly etch their names into the program’s storied past.

“We definitely have more to do, but we’ve continued to build from last season, and how we’ve developed in our skill and as a team has just been really cool to watch,” Emily concluded.

“It’s shocking because like, this is it.”