With five freshmen in the starting lineup, first-year Butler girls soccer coach Mary Ferreri knew there were going to be some ups and downs for her team, especially considering the Bulldogs play in the Southwestern 4A conference, a league which boasts three of the top 12 Class 4A teams in the state.
But Ferreri also knew that having goalkeeper Jessica Bunce, who earlier this year committed to continue her playing career at Lees-McRae College, as the last line of defense would provide plenty of bright spots as well.
“She’s definitely our shining star,” Ferreri said. “I’ve talked to her about all of the different roles she has on this team. She leads the team and has already become an extension of the coaching staff, and she’s turned into everything that she lives her life by.”
On the season, the senior has led the Bulldogs to a 6-8 record despite their tough conference affiliation and collective inexperience. Of course, there have been rough spots including the 7-0 loss the Bulldogs suffered to Providence, 4-0 and 7-0 defeats to Myers Park and a 3-0 loss to South Mecklenburg. All three of the aforementioned teams are ranked among the top 12 in the state, according to eurosportscorcard.com.
But overall, Bunce and her teammates have already exceeded expectations during what many people thought would be a down year.
“We’ve been practicing and working together to get where we are now,” she said. “We do have a really young team, and I think we’ve done really well for having five freshmen starting.
“Giving up seven goals to Providence is kind of embarrassing, but at the same time I know it’s not just me. It’s discouraging at times, but I know that in my role I need to stay positive and keep my head up the whole time. I know I have to stay positive for the team.”
While the blowout losses were on one extreme end of the spectrum, there have been plenty of memorable moments for Bunce as she’s spearheaded three shutouts, most recently a 6-0 blanking of rival Independence, and has held opponents to one goal on four other occasions. On the season, she averages close to 15 saves per game and has kept the Bulldogs in games they might otherwise have lost.
But preventing goals is nothing new to her. This summer, Bunce led her Charlotte United Futbol Club team to a 14-0 season while not allowing a single goal during the season, a remarkable feat at that level of play, which features several players who eventually play at the college level. Even before her stellar club performance, Bunce’s strong play had caught the eyes of a host of college coaches. But after visiting Lees-McRae in October, she said she felt right at home.
“When I went there in October, I loved it the moment I stepped on the campus,” Bunce said. “I’d been recruited by a lot of colleges in the state, but I just knew it was the right place for me. And now it’s such a relief to have it out of the way where I can focus on the season.
“I am speechless about (being a college player). I love it. I’ve wanted to play in college since I was 6 years old. It’s an awesome feeling.”
And while Bunce has her future secure, she said she isn’t about to give up on her current team, no matter how the rest of the season unfolds.
“From Day 1, she’s been great,” Ferreri said. “It would be easy for her to get discouraged, but she knows that we’re going to get better as a team as the season progresses. She doesn’t take any one game personally, and she always focuses on the positives, both on and off the field.”
Off the field, Bunce’s star shines as brightly as it does on it. She’s a member of the Butler D.R.E.A.M Team, serves on the leadership team for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and is a member of the National Honor Society.
With all of her accomplishments off the field, Bunce said she is most proud of her role on the D.R.E.A.M Team, an organization she’s looked forward to joining since she arrived at Butler.
“Being a positive role model to them is awesome,” Bunce said of her work with Lebanon Road Elementary second-grade students she mentors through the program.
“You make a difference in people’s lives every day, but it’s hard to realize it sometimes. With the D.R.E.A.M. Team, I realize it every day because the kids look up to us so much. I love doing it because we are such a family. It’s a really rewarding experience.”
While she’s living a fulfilling existence off the field, Bunce still has some on-the-pitch goals to achieve before her senior season ends. Bunce said she wants to make certain that the Bulldogs’ program remains how she found it after transferring to Butler from Greensboro’s Northwest Guilford High School before her sophomore season.
“When I got here, I loved it right away,” Bunce said. “It was more of a team here, and it was like there was more support. And this year, it seems to have grown. (The coaches) have been great this year. They wanted to bring everyone together and build a strong relationship between everyone.
“They’ve wanted us to become more of a team from the beginning of the season, and we’ve focused on bonding before the season started instead of after the season
And a big part of that team-building has been Bunce, Ferreri said.
“She preaches how important it is to be an all-around and dedicated person,” Ferreri said. “She shows them how to be a part of a team. All of the freshmen who’ve needed her guidance, she’s helped them understand where we need to go.
“Even though she’s (graduating), she genuinely wants to leave her mark at Butler.”
Bunce said there is nothing that she would like more than to lead the Bulldogs to a winning record and, more important, help the program ascend to new heights.
“I want to make sure that everyone stays with it and keeps getting better,” Bunce said. “I think that we’re better than people would’ve thought we’d be, but if we continue to improve and leave everything on the field each game, I’ll be happy.”
Ferreri thinks the program has already benefitted from having Bunce’s leadership helping guide them.
“It’d be easy for her to say, ‘Oh, forget it. I already have my scholarship to college,’” Ferreri said. “But she’s not like that. I think that she genuinely wants to help the girls and also have people remember that she was such a leader and to take that role with her as she moves on.”