Mankato’s three boys soccer teams all enter the 2019 season looking quite a bit different than last year.
West and Loyola/Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial/St. Clair/Madelia have new coaches, while East had major turnover in the player ranks due to graduation.
Still, expectations are high for each team as the new year begins.
“It’s a completely different team,” East senior Seth Hardesty said. “This year we’re starting fresh.”
It’s a sentiment that could be echoed all over Mankato’s soccer pitches this fall.
All three teams begin play on Thursday afternoon, with the Cougars hosting Red Wing at 4 p.m. at Thomas O. Anderson field, the Scarlets going on the road for a 4 p.m. game at New Prague and the Crusaders playing at 6:30 p.m. at Worthington.
Here’s a look at each team:
Don’t be fooled by how different the Cougars’ roster looks compared to last season. Sure, 17 senior graduated from the varsity squad — 25 from the whole program — but the players know each other well, coach Jerrad Aspelund said.
“A lot of (the graduated seniors) played for me as freshmen; it will be tough to replace their experience,” Aspelund said. “But the JV team was together a long time, almost three years for some. That’s almost unheard of. So it’s not a completely new group per se.”
East, which went 9-7-3 last season, has made it to the section championship four times in the last five years.
Aspelund, who is beginning his 13th season as head coach, said he’s counting on co-captain Hardesty and the few other returners to set the tone early.
“(Hardesty’s) a sparkplug,” the coach said. “He flies all over the place. He’s played more and more minutes as the years have progressed. Now he’s a staple as a senior leader and an anchor for our midfield.”
Hardesty agreed that it’s his job, along with senior attacker Isak Abader and junior defender and co-captain Brett Borchardt, to teach the newcomers the right way to play.
“We’ll use our experience to lead the new players and stay positive and show them the mindset of how to be a varsity athlete,” Hardesty said. “We might not be the best team or the most skilled team, but the Cougars always work hard and leave everything on the field. That’s always been what we’re known for. That’s what makes this team good.”
Abader, an All-City pick last year, is East’s top returning scorer with four goals and four assists last year. That ranked fourth on the team last year behind the now-departed Devon Swing (10 goals, four assists), Colin Knutson (seven goals, five assists) and Suleiman Haji (five goals, eight assists). Junior All-City goalkeeper Calin Jacobs, senior center back Muse Abdi and junior defender Jacob Kanzenbach also come in with experience, and talented backline player Victor Cano-Hernandez returns after a year away.
For the first time in 23 years, the Scarlets have a new coach. Leonard Woelfel retired, and Dan Blaisdell has moved up after one year coaching West’s JV team.
“I have some big shoes to fill, for sure,” Blaisdell said. “But Leonard left the program in good shape. He left a winning tradition that I’m fortunate to step into.”
Blaisdell does have some work to do, with West coming off a 3-14-1 season. However, he feels like he’s got a good core group of veterans who will turn things around.
“We didn’t graduate a lot of players who played heavy minutes,” Blaisdell said. “We have a lot more experience, and we’re going to try to take things to the next level.”
All-City players Sam Ambrose and Gus Olseth graduated from last year’s team, but the Scarlets have three other All-City honorees returning, including senior midfielder Luke Denhof, senior defender Hudson Hastings and junior goalkeeper Nick Lundberg.
Denhof, Hastings and junior defender Ethan Ulman are the team captains.
“Our goal is to play our best and get to the section championship game and even go as far as state,” Denhof said. “We’ll start off by trying to improve game by game and practicing hard. Coach always says how we practice translates into how we play in games.”
The Scarlets struggled scoring goals last season, but Denhof, who is starting his third varsity season, said he sees that turning around.
“We’ve definitely improved in our offensive abilities,” he said. “Our defense has been strong the last three years, but we’ve improved our shooting and our vision and our overall offensive skills.”
Other key returners include senior midfielder Tyler Makela and sophomore midfielders Casper Olseth and Joey Decko.
“I don’t see scoring being a big issue this year,” Blaisdell said. “We’re evenly balanced this year. … We’re seeing a lot of growth skill-wise.”
Loyola et al
Carlos Garcia is starting his first season as head coach of the Crusaders, but the team is hardly new to him. He was an assistant coach last season and the JV coach in 2017. Prior to that he coached most of the Madelia players since they were young in that community’s rec-plus program.
“We’re hoping to do better than last year,” Garcia said, referring to a 1-13-1 record. “We had just two seniors last year. This year we have more seniors and juniors, a lot of players who know each other.”
Dougray Siebenahler, a senior captain who is in his fifth varsity season, agreed.
“This season we seem to know each other very well,” the midfielder/defender said. “We expect to be more of a family, more of a team. I think we’ll play a lot better with each other.”
The Crusaders have 14 returners. Key players include senior defender John Rodezno and junior attacker Ramiro Zamora, the team’s leading scorer from a season ago. Both are co-captains, along with Siebenahler.
Goalkeepers Carlos Villanueva and Armando Zamora are also back, as are juniors Anderson Flores and Cody Pithan. The Crusaders also have an exchange student from Austria, Sandro Spielbuchles, whose year-round experience should boost their midfield.
“I think there’s a lot of talent out there,” Siebenahler said.
Garcia said Rodezno is bilingual, which will help communication, as the team has several Spanish-speaking players. Siebenahler, he said, will get everybody on the same page.
“Dougray is pretty good at getting the team together and doing the routine,” Garcia said. “He gets everybody to pay attention and stay on things.”
Last season ended on a good note with the team’s lone victory taking place on the last day of the regular season against Jordan.
“I think we’ll be even better with (coach Garcia),” Siebenahler said. “He’s been with the Madelia kids since they were little. They know him and he knows them. And being here the last two years, he knows us well.”