The Highland High School boys soccer team lost seven starters to graduation from last year’s squad, but the Bulldogs boast the most depth they have had in years.
“We lost a lot of starters from last year but we have a really big junior class that were sophomores last year, and a lot of them saw some varsity time, so they’ve matured a lot and been working out hard and I think they are ready to go this year,” he said. “I actually think this is the deepest team we’ve had since we’ve been here.”
Oswald said he feels like he can basically put all 18 players on the varsity roster in the game at some point and the talent level is not going to drop off very much, if any at all.
“In the past, maybe we’ve had 11 or 12 kids, and we had to leave some tired kids out there and just take our chances with a tired kids instead of getting a sub off the bench,” he said. “This year, I think we are going to be able to go high tempo and rotate kids out every seven, 10, 12 minutes and really keep them fresh and be able to put some pressure on people. When somebody comes off the bench, there is not a drop in talent.”
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In a couple of the team scrimmages, the non-starters have actually beaten the starting unit.
“That just goes to show you the parity between the two teams we are scrimmaging with,” Oswald said. “So, I think we are going to be really deep this year and that is something we have not been fortunate with in years past, and something we get to do this year to keep people with fresher legs. People shouldn’t be playing 25 minutes straight and tired at the end of the half. So that’s going to be a big advantage for us.”
A junior who will be a big key to the Bulldogs’ success on the pitch this season will be goalie Luke Jones. Jones takes over between the pipes for Emil “Lime” Garcia, who has been the mainstay in the net the past few years.
“Last year, Lime came out and just played outstanding and never gave Luke a chance to get in the pipes,” Oswald said. “Lime is going to be sorely missed and we would love to have him back, but Luke has looked sharp all summer long.”
Oswald said Jones played really strong in four of the five games in Iowa, while he also was solid in two of the three scrimmages against Father McGiveny, Granite City and Collinsville.
“I think he’s ready. He’s grown a bit, he has filled his body out and we’re expecting big things from him,” Oswald said of Jones. “I think he can pick up right where Lime left off.”
And the 10 juniors become even more important because Highland’s roster only features three seniors, Mitch Miller, Payton Barowski and Sam Million.
Add five sophomores to the varsity mix and Oswald believes the team has a good concoction for success this season.
Contributing to the depth on the defensive corps in front of Jones will be juniors Brett Korte and Montana Gilbert, and sophomores Cory Stieb and Blake Hagler, who all can play in the center backfield as well as the outside backfield. Also seeing time in the outside backfield will be Barowski, Miller and juniors Jack Landmann and Jake Ramsey.
“We are seven or eight deep just on the back line,” Oswald said. “Hopefully, we don’t have any injuries, but if something happens, we’ve got six or seven guys that are going to be ready to step up and fill those shoes.”
At center midfield, Highland will feature juniors Brendan Schrage, Nick Sikora and junior Brent Rapien as well as the sophomore Stieb.
“We’ve got four guys that we can rotate in and out there so we can keep them fresh because there is a lot of running for center mids,” Oswald said. “Normally, that is the position we don’t sub and we leave a tired guy in there, but this year that won’t be the case.”
Seeing time at outside midfield will be juniors Ollie Pfeiffer and Lucas Ammann, and sophomores Drake Gehrs and Andrew Roach, as well as Ramsey and Landmann.
Up top serving as strikers to help produce offense will be Evan Herman, Rapien and Ammann.
“I don’t know who will emerge or if all three of them can, but I really think Evan Herman, Brent Rapien and Lucas Ammann are all capable of putting double-digit goals this year,” Oswald said. “I don’t necessarily think that we’ll have a Nick Ammann (Lucas’ older brother) where one of them gets 30 (goals), but I really think that all three of them can get 10. A couple of them could even get to 15 or 20 if they keep working hard.”
Oswald said Schrage at center midfield will be a real important cog for Highland this season.
“Brendan Schrage to me is going to be a big center piece for our team because he has really improved,” the HHS coach said. “From his freshman year to now, he is the hardest worker on the team. He gets up and down the field and has a tank that just doesn’t expire. He’ll be a key in the center mid.”
Oswald also gave props to Sikora’s play-making abilities at center midfield.
“Nick distributes the ball so well,” Oswald said. “He sees the ball great and I think he is going to find Evan and Rapien and Lucas’ feet a lot and their going to have some great chances to finish some balls.”
With all of the talented depth, the Bulldogs have already set some lofty goals and right at the top is to bring back the Mississippi Valley Conference title to Highland for the first time in a few years.
However, it will not be an easy task as Waterloo returns every single starter from last year’s quality team.
“They were good last year and they are going to be even better this year so that is going to be a tough game,” Oswald said. “Triad is obviously always a tough game, but I really feel that we can compete with them. It’s going to be an interesting year. I honestly think we are going to shock some people, because we did lose so many seniors, but this is by far the deepest group that we’ve had in years. And they want to win conference, and I think it’s doable.”
The Bulldogs also want to add some postseason hardware to the trophy case at HHS.
“We have had our fair share of regional championships and this team wants to be the first team here to get a sectional championship,” Oswald said.