By PEDRO VELAZCO KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — The girls soccer landscape changed dramatically following the 2012 season as three coaches stepped aside after good seasons, creating new opportunities and new environments at Eastern, Kokomo and Northwestern.
At Kokomo, long-time Kevin Duggins takes over the defending sectional champ Wildkats after posting a string of double-digit win teams with the Comets. His veteran assistant Chris Rees took over at Greentown as Gang Green hopes to make waves with a veteran group.
At Northwestern, former Kokomo player Samantha Elkins takes over a program that scored 14 wins last season.
Below are looks at the five Howard County schools, starting with the three new skippers.
The Wildkats graduated a large group from last season’s sectional-winning squad that finished 13-6-1. In addition, they lost long-serving coach Myles Geary who stepped down following the season. Enter Duggins, who moves over following a successful run at Eastern.
“I’m really, really excited,” Duggins said. “It’s really hard obviously to leave a program that I’ve been so close to for so long, but I’m really excited to come out to another program to see what kind of good things I can do for them, maybe show them a different perspective as any kid would get who has gone from me to another coach.
“I hope that little change in perspective will encourage that kid and help them become better players and maybe open up a few doors for them as well.”
The Kats graduated 10 seniors and this year’s edition is sophomore heavy, with six pencilled into starting spots.
The defense features senior stopper or sweeper Anh Pham, junior stopper or sweeper Michaela Wade, sophomore wing defenders Grace Cameron and Aubrey Whiteman, and sophomore goalie Catherine Skaggs.
In midfield are junior Taylor Sparling and sophomore Holly Stewart. Those two are expected to fuel the Kats in transition. Sophomore Katelyn Van Horn is the right midfielder and freshman Grace Stout is on the left.
Up front are senior Cheyenne Eltringham, who led the Kats with 18 goals and nine assists last season, and sophomore Taylor Coram.
“Kokomo’s obviouisly a bigger program [than Eastern], an established program already having tradition, already having history,” Duggins said. “I want to make sure that the [veterans] that are already in place lead the way. I want to make sure that we come in and make this [coaching transition] as easy for everybody as possible and keep the tradition of team camaraderie and keep the things going that help them play as a core group.”
Duggins said he hopes to expand the Kats’ repertoire “into more formations, more strategies, just trying to add into what was already a good foundation of a program.”
The Comet program had been building toward this season for quite some time. Then this summer, the plans hit a speed bump as long-time coach Duggins left to take over at Kokomo. Now, nine-year assistant Chris Rees takes over and hopes that the Comets cruise without missing a beat.
“Most of these girls I coached out at Greentown in the rec league. A lot of these girls I’ve coached since they were 4, 5 years old,” Chris Rees said. “And I was with Kevin so long our coaching styles are very similar so it’s been pretty seamless.”
Eastern has 11 seniors on the squad. All that experience, with the addition of some underclassmen who will get on the field, leads to high hopes.
“I’m very excited about this season,” Chris Rees said. “I’ve got 24 good girls. I don’t have a bad apple in the bunch. These girls have played together most of their lives. I expect that we will have a very good season.”
Leading scorer Savannah Rees returns from a squad that was 10-5-1 last season. She scored 22 goals last season and will man the central midfielder spot. Elena White is a forward or wing midfielder. Marissa Evenson is a wing midfielder or forward.
Mikaela Malott lines up at sweeper or midfielder, with Becca Mundell at stopper or midfielder. Brittany Miller and Rachel Manfred are wing defenders and both can move up to midfield spots. Ciera Harden can play as a central defender or wing defender. Brooke Stout is back in goal after missing most of last season due to injury.
All of the above are seniors, except Evenson, a junior.
“I’m very pleased with what we have. I don’t think we have any holes on the field and have had a couple nice surprises [with new players],” Chris Rees said.
The new coach said his squad’s defense should be particularly stout with a host of interchangeable seniors in those spots. The Comets have won 38 games the past three seasons, a trend he expects to continue.
“These girls know what it takes to win, they know what it takes to play at a high level,” Chris Rees said. “They’ve had good training. They really put their nose to the grindstone. They seem to like each other and they like to play together.”
The Purple Tigers welcome a new coach in former Kokomo standout and Nicholls State player Elkins. She takes over a squad that finished 14-3 last year. It’s her first venture into coaching.
“I wanted to coach because I played soccer up through college and I really enjoy the sport, but I came to the point where I saw that life was bigger than sports,” said Elkins, who was Samantha Bledsoe when roaming the field for Kokomo. “The opportunity came to invest in these girls and that’s why I took it. We are about excellence and being for each other and really working together.
“When I came and found out about the program and spoke to the athletic director [Dan Armstrong] it was just a really good fit. I was really glad to hear what they saw as important and what their philosophy was.”
The Tigers lost some key elements from last season’s squad and are re-inventing themselves under a new coach.
In the middle of the park and attack, Northwestern features sophomore midfielder/forward Brooke Treadway, senior midfielder/forward Korey Price, junior midfielder Christine Dewhurst, junior midfielder Kaitlyn Daanen, junior midfielder Kindra Hamrick, sophomore midfielder/defender Karlie Renagle, senior midfielder/forward Brandi Harmon, and sophomore forward/midfielder Michaela Bennett.
The defense features senior Sarah Wallace, juniors Hannah Wilson and Abby Burns, sophomore Bayley Brutus and freshman Cate Hall. The two contesting for the goalie spot are junior Chloe Redman and sophomore Macey Mason.
Also looking to mix in are senior defender Madison Wells, junior defender Kaila Claiborne, sophomore midfielder Abby Heredos and five freshmen: midfielder/forward Kennedy Priday; defender Abby Olsen; defender Devyn Johnson; midfielder/forward Bailey Thatcher; and defender Kelsey Metz.
“They’re a team that has a lot of good characteristics and qualities in soccer and in life and I see soccer as a sport that draws in both, working on having a positive attitude through and through because sports are so mental. It’s not the best team that wins, it’s the one that mentally stays the strongest.
“I’ve got great attack, I’ve got some great defense, but all has to come together at the same time and I look forward to them, as young ladies, seeing that happen.”
Western hopes an experienced core blends well with promising newcomers to produce another leap forward after posting a 9-6-1 mark last year.
“I think this is the most advanced skill-wise, tactical-wise team I’ve had in all the years I’ve been coaching, the last four years as head coach,” Panther coach Nicole Jackson said.
Versatility is the best aspect of her squad. Jackson has a lot of players she can put in different positions depending on injuries, substitutions or the opponent that day.
“I’ve got girls that can play all over the field and I’ve never had that before,” Jackson said.
“It helps us out a lot. It makes us a lot more versatile. it’s a game-to-game situation how we play people.”
Jackson is leaning on a senior class that includes defenders Emily Hawkins, Cheyenne Rayl and Tricia Hayes, center midfielder Chassidy Lenn, midfielder Tifanee Achor, and forward Bre Buckalew (five goals last season).
Other key returners are junior goalie Sybil Johnson and sophomore midfielder Sarah Connolly, the leading returning scorer with seven goals. Two freshmen are expected to make an instant impact: defender/midfielder Jenna Seaman and midfielder/forward Emma Harbaugh.
“I think we’re going to be a pretty quick team, good passing. We have a real good goalkeeper, strong defense,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be real interesting to see how we stack up against other teams.”
Jackson said the team’s biggest weakness going into the season is not being familiar enough as a group. Several knots of players have been together with the Panthers or in club ball but they’re not yet fluid as a whole squad.
The coach expects that to develop and hopes to wedge her team in the hunt for hardware.
“They’re really wanting to win MIC this year,” Jackson said. “Last year we came close with [games against] Northwestern and Eastern kind of down to the wire each game. We’re definitely on the lookout, watching Hamilton Heights — they’re the biggest competition in the conference. We’re looking to take it this year.”
The Titans return 10 players as they look to take steps forward after a 1-13-1 season.
“I have a lot of girls again this year that don’t have a lot of experience with soccer, but are willing to do their best and pick it up as quick as they can,” Taylor coach John Piotrowicz said.
“In our practices we’ve seen [veteran leadership] and have seen some improvement overall. This group has done well to retain [skill and knowledge] so I’m hoping to build upon that.”
Last season the Titans took a hit when Lauren Shively went down with an injury during the season, forcing a re-shuffle of the lineup.
“I’m ecstatic she’s back with us,” Piotrowicz said of the senior midfielder. “She shows good leadership and being able to kind of be that field captain for us. With her being on the field, that should help us reorganize and kind of press on from where we were a year ago with our group — literally because most of them are the same girls.”
Other key players the Titans will rely on this season are senior midfielder Maria Owens, senior fullback/midfielder Faith Marley, sophomore midfielder Savannah Delgado (four goals last season), junior defensive midfielder/fullback McKenna Deckard, and senior midfielder Karla Winburn. Winburn and Owens are three-year starters, while Shively is a four-year mainstay.
The team’s experience is bunched in midfield to help with Piotrowicz’s main goal — improving possession and time of possession.
“I can’t stress how much that they have the desire to get better as a team and on their own,” Piotrowicz said. “Sometimes as a coach I like to rant and rave a little bit at them and get in their faces. I have not had to do that for over a year now and that speaks to the caliber of girls that are there.
“I’m hoping that’ll translate into some wins for us because they are doing their best to learn and pay attention and be better soccer players.”