Mankato’s girls soccer teams all come into the 2019 season with big expectations and lots of big cleats to fill.

Mnakato West, Mankato East and Mankato Loyola/Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial/St. Clair/Madelia each graduated big-time scorers from last season, so it might be up to the players on the back end to get their seasons off on the right foot.

“We’re building a new foundation,” West senior defender Ali Rutz said.

All three teams begin play on Thursday afternoon, with the Scarlets hosting Orono at 5 p.m. at Dakota Meadows, the Cougars going on the road for a 4 p.m. game at Red Wing and the Crusaders hosting Worthington at 5 p.m. at the Loyola field.

Here’s a look at each team:

West

The Scarlets have advanced to state in each of the last three seasons, and Rutz would love nothing more than to get there one more time.

“That would be the cherry on top,” she said, “to finish my career with four state appearances.”

West went 17-2-1 last season, falling to Holy Angels in the state quarterfinals.

Rutz, school record-setting goalkeeper Claire Hemstock (.922 save percentage) and forwards Katie Roberts and Kristen Rasmussen — all seniors — are the team captains and form a solid core for this season.

However, West has to replace some significant graduates, including the program’s third all-time leading scorer Ashley Gustavson (14 goals last season), as well as Rachel Luedtke (18) and Lexi Peterson (14), along with other key players.

Roberts scored nine goals last season and assisted on three others. Rasmussen had six goals and four assists.

“We have 11 returners who played varsity all year last year,” said Crissy Makela, who is starting her 24th season as the Scarlets’ head coach. “We did bring on eight new players, mostly sophomores, who all have very high soccer IQs. They’re very strong, very skilled and very aware of the game.”

Both Makela and Rutz said they’re not thinking about another postseason run at this point. Instead, the focus is on getting the season started right.

“We have a lot of room to grow,” said Rutz, who plans to continue her soccer career at Minnesota State next year. “But it’s a solid team. We have high expectations.”

Having good leadership should ease the transition, Makela said.

“(Rutz) was a captain last year as a junior and has been on varsity (since sections of her eighth-grade season),” the coach said. “She has that experience as a versatile player and as a leader. Ali really does lead both vocally and by example.”

East

Two years ago, Cougars opponents knew that had to prepare to stop Jenny Vetter. Last year, it was Natalie Schisel who caused them concern.

This year, East might not yet have a big-name scorer up front, but better balance — along with some more-seasoned young players — might be the key to improving on last year’s 8-8-1 record.

“I’m excited about this team,” senior goalkeeper Emily Eckheart said. “I think our chemistry is the best it’s been, and we’re playing together more than I’ve ever seen. … I think we’re going to surprise a lot of teams.”

Eckheart, who had four shutouts last season, is one of five seniors on the roster and is beginning her third season as a starter.

“She’s our saving grace,” coach Lizzy Vetter said. “She works hard and is committed to doing everything she can to get better, day in and day out. If there’s a leader on this team, it’s her.”

Forward Chloe Miller, midfielder Kristina Volk and defenders Olivia Starkey and Taylor Soma are the other seniors.

Juniors Megan Geraets and Sydney Prybylla return to the midfield and backline, respectively, Vetter said, but from there, the Cougars are still pretty young and will be relying on a few freshmen who played regularly as eighth-graders.

“We have pretty high expectations,” said Vetter, who is in her third season as coach. “We’ve been talking for a couple years about being a super-young team. Now those young girls have turned into older girls. It’s exciting to see. They’ve all come into camp fit and strong.”

Eckheart, who has aspirations to continue her career at the collegiate level, said she doesn’t see the young players as eighth- and ninth-graders, just as teammates.

“I’m comfortable with them,” she said. “I’m confident in them.”

Said Vetter: “We’ve been building something here. We’re definitely more confident,”

Loyola, et al

The Crusaders may represent many schools, but it’s hardly a team divided.

“We work really well together as a team, even though we’re from four different schools,” said senior defender and captain Liz Nachreiner said. “When you watch us play, you wouldn’t be able to tell that because we work so well together.”

Nachreiner sees herself as a field leader from her defensive position.

“I can see the whole field and communicate what’s going on,” she said.

It’s a spot she knows is vital this season after the loss via graduation of top scorer Sidney Botker and midfielder Anne Wood, both All-City selections.

“She brings experience; she’s been playing for a number of years and plays the defensive position well,” coach Nicole Ruhland said of Nachreiner, who has been a varsity player since seventh grade. “She’s great at communicating both on and off the field. She’s willing to work hard as captain and does a good job motivating her teammates.”

The Crusaders have just six returning varsity players, including junior defender Lexi Breuer, as well as seniors Mariah Sadaka and Mariah Kreykes, juniors Taite Grant and sophomore Olivia Kreykes.

Sadaka, a defender last year, will move up to forward/midfielder to help fill the gap.

“It’s about knowing where everyone fits,” Nachreiner said.

The Crusaders went 5-10-1 last season, but they’re not just looking to improve on that record, said Ruhland, who is in her fourth season as coach.

“I think just really jelling a team,” Ruhland said. “We’re a young team and we need to figure out where everyone fits best. I want to see our new, young players develop from the beginning of the season to the end of the season.

“We want to make sure we’re seen as one team, not as four separate schools.”

For more college hockey coverage, read Shane Frederick’s Puckato blog and follow him on Twitter

@puckato.

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Sports editor. College hockey and general sports reporter.

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