With the season set to kick off today, Free State High girls soccer coach Jason Pendleton still is not sure what to expect from his team.
But an impressive combination of upperclassmen, returning standouts and talented newcomers has Pendleton expecting a better finish than the first-round playoff loss his squad turned in last season. Even if that isn't abundantly clear right away.
"We're a work in progress," Pendleton said. "The team you see at the beginning of the season is a lot different than the team that you'll see at the end of the season. We're going to have to have contributions from everyone on the team in order to have success."
Leading the way for FSHS this season will be seniors Logan Keasling, Leah Williams and Katie Bracciano. Keasling, a midfielder, was an honorable mention all-Sunflower League selection as a junior. Williams, who can play anywhere on the field, is a two-time all-state selection. And Bracciano adds depth to a team that has high expectations for 2008.
In addition to the three senior leaders, Pendleton returns sophomore starters Hannah Carlson (midfielder) and Grace Lang (defender), and both are expected to build on solid freshman seasons.
"Even though we only return five starters, they're five very strong players, and I feel very good about the nucleous we have entering this season," Pendleton said. "Athletically, we're going to be able to compete. It's just a matter of how quickly we catch up tactically."
The most talented freshman class in Pendleton's nine-year tenure likely will go a long way toward determining how fast that happens. Pendleton said as many as six freshmen could join the varsity squad this year, and four or five are expected to start.
The biggest question for the Firebirds comes in the net, where Pendleton will attempt to replace a four-year starter - his second in a row - at goalkeeper. Junior Fanny Petersson expects to get the first crack at filling the position, and Pendleton said he was confident his team would be fine at the position as the season moves along.
Goalkeeper won't be a problem for the Lawrence High girls, as three-year starter Emma Lumpe takes her familiar place between the pipes. Lumpe was first-team all-state as a freshman, but saw her production dip slightly a season ago as the Lions struggled to keep possession of the ball.
LHS finished 5-10-2 in 2007 and will be shooting for a better finish in 2008. Fourth-year coach Matt Anderson returns 10 starters from a team that won the first playoff game in school history, and with it comes added depth and loads of experience.
"We finally have a balance that we've been going toward," Anderson said. "It's a very talented group, and for the first time in program history every player on our roster plays club soccer."
Of the 10 returners, senior defenders Madison Bertrand and Alyson Lunte, along with senior midfielders Kathleen Hermesch and Kaela Severa, figure to play the most pivotal role from both a productivity standpoint and as leaders.
Joining that group of seniors is a pack of three-year starters who will be counted on to add a boost to the Lions' attack. Juniors Heather Miller, Megan Andrews, Steph Stuever and Becky Davis all know what Anderson expects. And sophomores Olivia Dykes, Kaley Tesdahl and Kristy Gerard provide Anderson with more punch from the striker position.
"Offensively, we're hoping to double our shots per game and to get more of those on net," said Anderson, justifying his team's switch from a 4-4-2 formation to a 3-5-2 formation, which adds an extra midfielder to the attack. "We have so many midfielders, and experience in the back line and we're hoping that will lead to more offense."
LHS opens the season today against Newton at the McPherson Invitational. The Lions enter the tourney as the defending champs.
Free State, meanwhile, opens the season today at home against Shawnee Heights.