By PEDRO VELAZCO
---- — There’s plenty of promise around Howard County as big groups return to co-Mid-Indiana Conference boys soccer champions Northwestern and Western, the county pace-setters. Those squads expect to post strong seasons again this year thanks to light graduation losses and plenty of talent.
Elsewhere in the county, Eastern and Taylor took huge strides last season but follow up with young squads, and Kokomo hopes a major influx of talent produces a rebound season.
Below are capsules on the five county squads, in order of record last season.
The Class A Tipton Sectional champion Purple Tigers expect to go from strength to strength after returning 23 players from a 15-3 squad that also shared MIC honors with Western. Northwestern lost five senior starters, but returns much more.
“It’s helpful because we don’t have to start at such a basic level,” NW coach Jim Wagner said of the team’s experience. “We’ve been focusing mainly the last two weeks on improving their creativity on the offensive end. We’ll have a couple seniors leading the defense that have been doing a good job getting the younger guys up to speed and filling the gaps that we had in the back.”
Three of the five graduation losses were in the defensive unit, including the goalie, leaving a lot of returning players in midfield and attack.
“I think we’ll be good at scoring,” Wagner said. “The question mark is on the defensive end, how strong our defense is going to be? We had a really strong defense last year, a lot of shutouts, a lot of one-goal games. If we can do that again this year, we’re really going to be in good shape.”
The current senior class features flashpaper forward Robert Olsen, who led the team in goals (17) and assists (10) last year. He can also move back to midfield. His classmates include midfielder/defender Haden Hall, center back Benny Hernandez, midfielder Garrett Hite, and Graham Ortmann, who is contesting for the goalie spot and will play defense if not in goal.
The junior class includes left back Michael Thibault, midfielder and sometime forward Jacob Wagner (13 goals), forward and sometime midfielder Blaine Brutus (13 goals, six assists), midfielder Spencer Lubben, and midfielder Parker Fessenden.
Midfielder Daniel Hernandez, defender Mark Todd and Grant Condon, who is contesting for the goalie spot, are key sophomores.
“We’ve got an odd schedule where we’ll play a lot of MIC road games [five, with two at home],” Jim Wagner said. “It’s going to make it a lot tougher but I think we’ve got the experience. The guys are a lot bigger. I would expect to be at about [last year’s] level. Obviously I’d think our goals are to win the MIC and sectional again.”
The Panthers lost only three seniors from an 11-4-1 team so the team should be very similar to last season, only with a greater sense of urgency. Western shared the MIC title with Northwestern last season but fell in the first round of play in the Class 2A Kokomo Sectional.
“We have a very solid group back and very motivated,” coach Mike Roe said. “I think they’ll be a very good defensive team. As far as possession goes, I’m a fan of possession so I coach it a lot. I feel like we’ll be solid there, but maybe not as good as before. This team’s personality is a little more goal-hungry than some of our teams in the past. They’re pretty relentless in the attacking phase. I think you can look to see us maybe a little more high-scoring than we have been the last couple years.”
A large senior group returns including: goalie Edgar Sanchez (1.2 goals against average last season); defenders Zac Simpson, Nick Downing, Nic Bewley and Cody Cox; midfielder/defender Chris Carter; midfielder Chris Root (six goals); and playmaking central midfielder Jordan Roe (13 goals, 11 assists).
Also key to the team are junior midfielder/forward Conner Hill, sophomore defender/midfielder Braden Crowell, sophomore defender/forward Micah Bickford, sophomore forward/midfielder Mason May (eight goals, five assists); and sophomore midfielder Reggie Manuel.
The Panthers have a couple areas they need to improve as they set their eyes on conference glory and a shot at redemption in the sectional.
“Our bench has got to get a lot better,” Mike Roe said. “We need some big minutes from the bench and that’s going to take some big improvement. We’ve definitely taken some big steps — they’re learning by leaps and bounds. We’ve got to keep positive communication and communication with a purpose. That’s one of our biggest goals is making sure we’re directing each other and thinking a step ahead.”
The Comets have a small core of upperclassmen to mix in with an otherwise young group as they follow up an 11-5 season that saw them win seven more games than the previous year.
“I’ve got an interesting team this year,” Eastern coach John VanMatre said. “I call it ‘down my spine:’ I’ve got four seniors on the field — my goalie, central defender ... midfielder and center forward. Then we’ve got a lot of young guys, got a lot of freshmen and sophomores up there.
“I really do have a lot of talent this year. My only real concern is our size and experience at this level. One of the things that’s hard to replicate in practice is the speed of play that you’re going to need when it gets competitive.”
The senior group includes center forward Jordan VanMatre, who missed all last season with a torn ACL after scoring 14 goals as a sophomore, middle defender Josh Sommers, goalie Delon Tuggle and left midfielder Darren Bellow.
Others expected to play big roles are junior central defender Trent Stiner, sophomore right forward Dillon Ryan (he leads returnees with six goals and 10 assists), sophomore right midfielder Dalton Ryan, sophomore left midfielder/forward Nate Everett, and four freshmen who will see plenty of time: central midfielder/defensive midfielder Lucas VanMatre; defender Austin Campbell; left forward Cole Walker; and forward/midfielder Ben Cole.
John VanMatre thinks the squad will have a strong bench to bolster a starting 11 that is more skilled than previously.
“I hope to be good at possessing the ball and I really hope to be good at — this is one of my hallmarks as a coach — finding that perfect balance between being able to possess the ball but also having that sense of urgency to get the ball forward and score when the opportunities present themselves,” he said.” Almost one through 11 I’ve got some really good ball skills. It’s nice to have that and not have holes that you’re worried about.”
The Titans tripled their win total from their previous campaign by going 9-10 last season. Ten players return from that squad, but the bulk of the team is lowerclassmen as 14 of the 17 Titans are sophomores or freshmen.
“We’re extremely young,” Taylor coach Mike Shane said with a laugh.
Shane said the team’s biggest challenge is having “patience. That’s a big one, getting them to play the way you want them to play. They haven’t been around the system. The nice thing is they are young, they are moldable. They’re a very eager group, very into the sport, they constantly want to play, they constantly want to improve.”
Eight seniors, including six starters, graduated from last season’s squad, meaning plenty of opportunities for the younger Titans — especially a big sophomore class.
Sophomores include defender/midfielder Kyle Orzech, defender/midfielder Joey Townsend, midfielder/forward Robbie Tebbe (the leading returning attacker with three goals and three assists), midfielder/defender Zach Bentley, forward Allen Bottomley, and midfielder/forward Jeremiah Rhoades.
Junior goalie/forward Kyle Roe is going to be counted on for leadership as the most experienced Titan.
Freshman all-arounder Hunter Stephens, freshman defender/midfielder Cole Braun and freshman midfielder/forward Caleb Murdock will also mix in.
Taylor lost three of its four starting defenders and a goalie so the rest of the team will need to help out on defense.
“A lot of it is getting experience more than anything,” Shane said. “They can play all the travel programs they want but it’s not the same as playing in high school. It’s going to be a building year.”
The Wildkats slumped to 2-14 last season after heavy graduation losses from the year before. Nine players return from last year, and a major injection of talent from newcomers means coach Kismet Morrison expects a “huge improvement” even if the real breakthrough might be another season ahead.
“What I can say is we definitely are a whole lot stronger than we were last year,” Morrison said. “This should be a reasonable season for us.”
Newcomers run from freshmen to seniors who are new to the program but not new to the game.
“This team definitely has skill on its side,” Morrison said. “Most of the guys that are coming in this year have played soccer for a good few years. The skill level, the technical level is there. What they lack is the experience and physical aspect of the game that a varsity team demands. We just have to be patient as they develop.”
Some experienced players who form the backbone of the team are junior midfielder Philip Heilman, senior defender/midfielder Ben Huff, senior midfielder Aaron Dea, senior defender Christian Hall and senior defender Zach Sasser. Junior defender Robbie Lambert is new to the team but has plenty of playing experience.
Three newcomers who show a lot of promise are all center forwards: sophomore Arland McIlrath; freshman Vinh Lee; and freshman Keagan James. McIlrath and Lee are involved in the Olympic Development Program.
Kokomo also looks for contributions from junior midfielder Dillon Graham, freshman goalie Caleb Cook, freshman defender Garreck Durato, senior midfielder Jordan Eley, sophomore all-arounder Jared Dill, junior defender Colan Ruch, sophomore forward Anish Madhusoodhanan, sophomore defender S.A. Dunn, sophomore midfielder Christian Rebollar, and junior defender Austin Doehrman.
“There’s definitely soccer ability,” Morrison said. “They may not set the soccer scene alight this year, but they will definitely be something to reckon with next year once they get experience under their belts.”