Woodbury and East Ridge have a natural rivalry. Sharing the same city and being located less than four miles apart will have that effect.

But if rivalries are meant to be heated and filled with emotion, East Ridge girls' soccer coach Mark Abboud is not quite there yet.

Case in point: When Royals attacker Maddie Nelson scored the game-winner against East Ridge in early September, Abboud kind of enjoyed it.

"Couldn't be too disappointed," the Raptors coach said. "A kid that you've worked with for a number of years and you see have that kind of success is fun to watch."

Abboud served as the Woodbury Soccer Club's coaching director from 2000-2004, primarily working with the 10- and 11-year-old girls. Many came all the way through the Woodbury system and ended up playing at the varsity level. So three years ago, when East Ridge made Abboud its inaugural girls' soccer head coach, he started seeing some very familiar faces when the two teams face off.

Rivalry? More like a family reunion.

"I keep telling people that I'm looking forward to next year. It will kind of be the first year where I don't feel like I'm playing myself," said Abboud, who played for Macalester College and several professional teams, including the Minnesota Thunder.

This year's Royals represent the last batch of Abboud's former players, including Nelson, fellow Woodbury captain Lauren Nash and more.

The first team he coached with the Woodbury Soccer Club included what turned out to be the varsity team's core group for a number of years: Kassey Kallman, Caitlin Grabowski, Catie Sessions, Mary Kroening and others.

They all went on to play high-level Division I soccer. They also developed a strong relationship with their youth coach.

"They were all flower girls in my wedding," said Abboud, reflecting his strong ties to the Woodbury soccer community.

That ability to connect -- and cultivate success -- has transferred to East Ridge, where the still relatively new school already has experienced winning seasons even without an established direct feeder program.

Senior midfielder Sarah Rich has been coached by Abboud since she was 10. She lived in Hastings before her family started looking in the Woodbury area.

"He was basically the deal-breaker between Woodbury and East Ridge," said Rich, one of the Raptors' four captains. "I was looking at the soccer coaches and I was like, 'I want Mark Abboud to be my coach again.' So we ended up coming to East Ridge, and it's been the best experience ever."

Rich helps lead a young team that includes four ninth-graders, four 10th-graders and an eighth-grader. What the coach once thought was a rebuilding year has turned into a 13-3 regular-season record and the third seed heading into the Class 2A Section 4 tournament.

Undefeated Mahtomedi and Woodbury rank ahead of East Ridge, followed by White Bear Lake, Stillwater and Hill-Murray in one of the state's toughest groups.

Abboud's experience, knowledge and passion have his team ready.

"He'll just say one thing and it gets the team going and we all laugh," Rich said. "Whether it's at halftime and we're not doing so good or if it's before a big game, he says something and we all just can take a deep breath and relax, and know no matter what, he cares about us."