By Jim Rueda
---- — MANKATO — The number of players in the high school soccer programs is down this year, but there's good reason.
Officials in District 77 decided after last season, when some programs were fielding as many as five teams, that they needed to whittle that down to a more manageable number. The solution was to cut seventh-graders out of the mix unless they could demonstrate enough ability to contribute on a varsity team.
The seventh-graders won't necessarily turn into couch potatoes, however, as the Mankato United Soccer Club has stepped in to fill the void. This year, for the first time in the club's history, it's fielding Under-13 fall traveling teams for boys and girls. Previously the fall teams only went up to the Under-12 level.
Despite the slightly lower numbers at Mankato East and West, their high school programs should remain healthy and competitive this season. Mankato Loyola, which doesn't fall under the District 77 umbrella, will still have seventh-graders in its programs.
Most teams open the season this week. Here is a brief overview of each team:
WEST GIRLS: With about 40 players in grades 8-12, coach Crissy Makela is making plans to get at least one more win this fall. A year ago her team lost to St. Peter in the Section 2A finals.
The Scarlets will have to do it without two big contributors — Breeta Oxnard and Cara Christiansen — who have graduated. Defense is where Makela figures to do the most rebuilding.
Offensively, senior Maddy Burandt is on pace to hold just about every school goal-scoring and points record.
Fellow senior McKenna Peters returns to hold down at center-back position, and senior Katie Lauer will again patrol the net for West. Seniors Taylor Marx, Sydney Malone and Sierra Storm worked hard to improve during the offseason and are expected to be major contributors this fall.
Senior Hannah Fox will make an impact once she gets healthy. She broke her collarbone during summer soccer and is expected to be cleared for full contact sometime this week.
Makela said the one major goal is to win the section title.
"We can't just expect to pick up where we left off last year," she said. "We need to work hard everyday to make ourselves better. It's still a one-game-at-a-time approach."
West opens the season Thursday against rival St. Peter. Game time is 7 p.m. at St. Peter.
LOYOLA BOYS: First-year coach Lee Miller believes his team is primed for a successful season as it returns every player from a year ago and has an influx of some talented seventh-graders.
Miller, a 2003 graduate of Loyola who played collegiately at St. John's, says the heart and soul of his team will be in the middle of the field. It starts at the top with striker Patrick Bush, follows with center-midfielders Will Cipos and Reilly Knutson, continues with stopper Malik Baxter and ends up with sweeper Ryan Van Blarcom.
All are juniors except Knutson and Van Blarcom, who are the team's co-captains this season. Van Blarcom has played center-mid for most of his career but is dropping back to the sweeper spot.
"He's never played there before, but he's one of our best athletes and is a great communicator and I felt we needed him there," coach Miller said. "He's sacrificing a lot because it's not really his position, but he's definitely one our strongest players."
The goalkeeping candidates are still sorting themselves out. Miller expects to name his starter right before the season-opener scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at home against Hutchinson.
With a strong nucleus of returning players, Miller is optimistic. He doesn't want to predict a win total but believes the Crusaders can go deep into the section playoffs and perhaps even make it to state.
"It's a good group of players," he said. "The older kids help out the younger kids, and we try to foster that by having everybody practice together. In the long run that will benefit the program."
EAST GIRLS: Coach Akram Osman doesn't want to use the word rebuilding when talking about his team, but there's no doubt they've graduated a lot of top players, including longtime keeper Kelsey Ekstedt and high-scoring forwards Marta Anderson and Hannah Whittington.
With 36 players in camp, Osman expects to field both a varsity and junior varsity team. Leading the way among the returning players are senior defender Emily Stangel, junior midfielder Lizzy Vetter, junior midfielder Rebekah Kolstad, junior defenders Sydney Halbur and senior defender Caitlin Clause.
"We're going to have to find a way to create some scoring punch," Osman said. "Eighth-grader Jenny Vetter and sophomore Taylor Kuechle should be able to help us in that area."
The Cougars finished third in the Big Nine Conference last season, just one point behind runner-up Rochester Century. Preseason favorite Owatonna is the defending champion, and Osman says East is gunning for another Top 3 finish.
East (14-4 last season) lost to eventual state tournament entrant St. Peter 1-0 in the section semifinals. The coach said the key is finding a way to win those close games when they count the most.
The Cougars start the season Thursday at New Prague.
WEST BOYS: The Scarlets reached the semifinals of Section 2A in 2012 and seem poised to make another run at a state tournament berth.
Gone are All-Big Nine and honorable mention All-State player Bill Letich, All-Big Nine player Nick Herwig and all-city player Kyle Sandman. The good news is, West has a wealth of returnees as coach Leonard Woelfel has 86 players in camp in grades 8-12.
The top senior veterans include goalkeeper Sam Farley, sweeper Kennedy Maker and forward Dylan Lampert . Junior midfielder Matt Ouren is also back as is freshman forward Jake Makela. Makela led the team in scoring a year ago.
"We're going to see how our depth plays out once we identify the players that won't come off the field very often," Woelfel said. "When we see who we have left to substitute in, we'll have a better idea of how deep we are."
Woelfel tabs Owatonna and Rochester Mayo as the two favorites in the Big Nine. In the section he sees a four-team race featuring the Scarlets, Mankato East, St. Peter and Willmar.
West begins the season with a key sectional match against Willmar. Starting time is 5 p.m. at Dakota Meadows field.
LOYOLA GIRLS: Second-year coach B.J. Peterson welcomed about 32 student-athletes to preseason camp, including a strong core of returning players.
The Crusaders' biggest loss to graduation was probably goalkeeper Sarah Pellar, a mainstay for three straight seasons. Peterson expects last year's JV goalie, Kim Krmpotich, to take over that role.
The freshman has grown nearly six inches from last year and is playing well in practice. Peterson is expecting good things: "She has that rock star attitude, and that's going to help her."
Loyola returns three key players in center-midifielder Aunikah Bastian, sweeper Alia Coughlan and midfielder/defender Emily Gaspar. Peterson describes them as the heart of the team.
Among the other key players returning are Lissy Ninneman, Katarina Vetter and Karla Krmpotich. Eighth-grader Elizabeth Pellar and freshman Tiara Coughlan are expected to contribute as well.
Among the team goals are to play strong defense (the Crusaders allowed just 1.9 goals per game last year) and win more games than a year. "We were 4-10 last year, and I'd like to see at least six wins this year," Peterson said.
Loyola opens the season Friday at Hutchinson.
EAST BOYS: The Cougars have two big holes to fill as all-state player Albert Podshivaylov and defender Nick Dahmann have graduated. Coach Jerrad Aspelund will look to find replacements from among the 60 student-athletes he has in grades 8-12.
East returns two of its top scorers from last year in sophomores Ben Schwartz and Brandon Sloniker. Nick Olson returns experience at the goalkeeper position. Senior Christian Eiden had figured to contribute as a center-midfielder, but he broke his fibula right before practice and is out for the season.
Defensively, the Cougars return two strong players in Josh Sloniker and Nathan Dreyer. Both are seniors.
Defending Big Nine champion Owatonna is the favorite to repeat in the conference. Rochester Century and Rochester Mayo should also be near the top.
"I'd like to think we can compete for a spot in the Top 4," Aspelund said. "We've been right up in that area almost every year, and there's no reason to believe we can't do it again."
In Section 2A, East and crosstown rival Mankato West figure to be the favorites. They were two of the strongest teams a year ago as East snuck past West in the section semifinals in a shootout and then beat Fairmont to earn a state tournament berth.
The Cougars open the season at 4:30 p.m. Thursday with a game against New Prague.