Letts equals more for Rebels

Although it’s been labeled a defensive-minded team this season, likely for little other reason than its defense has remained excellent while its scoring has dipped from recent years, the Flintridge Prep girls’ soccer team showed in its win over archrival Pasadena Poly on Feb.1 that it’s still pretty well-rounded.

Junior midfielder Abby Letts is likewise better known for her defensive prowess, but played a big offensive role in the 4-2 Prep League win that was central to the team’s title run, scoring an insurance goal on a penalty kick late and sparking the Rebels’ first two set-piece goals in the first half with spot-on throw-ins.

“She came through and that made a big difference in that game, going up, 2-0, at halftime,” Prep Coach Esteban Chavez said.

And those were just the contributions that showed up in the box score.

“She’s really good in the air, she wins everything in the air,” Chavez says. “She’s really aggressive, she anticipates really well and she wins all the 50-50 balls. She’s really solid in all aspects of a defender.”

As a center back, Letts was an integral part of the Rebels’ last two Prep League-champion teams, but since being switched to a holding midfielder midway through last season, Letts has come into her own this year as a key figure in solidifying the backfield, while giving the offense a spike.

With its offense losing its best pure scorer to graduation in standout forward Brooke Elby, versatility and balance, as well as maximizing possession, have all become even more key for Prep, which has scored 12 fewer regular-season goals than last season, albeit in three fewer games. Consequently, Letts’ job description — winning physical battles for loose balls, going after balls in the air and being a facilitator in both directions — became a whole lot more important to the Rebels’ chances for success.

Judging from what they’ve accomplished so far, she’s more than lived up to her responsibilities.

The Rebels just wrapped up a 15-2-1 regular season and 9-1 run through league for their second straight outright title and third in a row overall with the CIF Southern Section Division III playoffs just days away. They’ve won seven in a row and posted five shutouts in that span.

“She’s done a lot in every game,” Rebels defender Connell Studenmund says. “She gives us opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

While her merit as a center back wasn’t in doubt — she was an all-league selection as a freshman — Chavez says her value has jumped playing in front of the backline of Studenmund, Whitney Cohen and Chelsea Johnson, as well as goalkeeper Casey Cousineau.

“I really enjoy the position because I like being active and winning balls in the middle,” Letts says. “It gives me an opportunity to be a more offensive player and get more involved in the attack.

“When I get on the field, I really want to make a difference and I’m really driven to win the ball. That’s one of my favorite things, actually, getting 50-50 balls and winning tackles.”

Admittedly a bit of an introvert, Letts has come out of her shell on the field more this year and played with more aggression and physical toughness. But while that’s helped her control the midfield, she hasn’t abandoned the discretion that earned Chavez’ trust to begin with.

“They’re all at the same level to me and they all have their strengths,” Chavez says of his backfield options, “but the difference is Abby in that position, just because she won’t take a risk that she doesn’t need to take and because of her consistency winning the balls and not getting beat.”

As a reward, Letts has been able to expand her role, scoring three goals this year, while adding five assists, and has unexpectedly become the team’s throwing specialist.

“Since I was little, I’ve been able to have a pretty big throw and this year I’ve been given the opportunity to actually take most of the throw-ins,” Letts says. “On defense you usually don’t get to take a lot of throw-ins, but as a midfielder I get the opportunity. My throw-in wouldn’t be as good if we didn’t have the team we have to really attack the ball and get physical when I throw it in.”

Chavez says Letts can drop a ball in the box from the sideline from as far as 45 yards out, giving the Rebels a new dimension of their set offense and yet another way to manufacture goals.

“A throw-in 30 yards away from the goal doesn’t seem that dangerous, but then when she picks up the ball it seems to turn into a corner kick into something more dangerous even,” Studenmund says.

Adapting skillfully to all challenges, whether player turnover or the rise of challengers to their throne, the Rebels truly demonstrated their staying power this season. Now there’s the opportunity to try to equal or build on last year’s quarterfinal run.

“I think we’ve been able to do it through hard work,” Letts says. “I think we just really care about the game, it’s really important to us and every single player really works as hard as we possibly can. It doesn’t matter how tired we are, we just keep going.

“We definitely want to at least reach the level we did last year and go even further.”

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