The Highland High School boys soccer team will need several players to step up after losing 12 seniors off last year’s team that reeled off the program’s best record in years at 14-5-3.
“I’m going to miss every one of those 12 guys from last year, obviously,” said Highland coach Josh Oswald. “We’ve got 33 players this year, so we lost over a third of our team to graduation. We return just six starters from last year, so we’re a bit more inexperienced.
“There are a lot of new faces, but there is a big class of juniors, and they have been around for a couple of years. So they are catching up to speed pretty quickly, and I think they can fill in some of the holes nicely.”
Oswald said that this team may not be as talented as last year’s throughout the entire roster, but there still is a good pool of talent and a good work ethic throughout the squad.
“We have a lot of kids that are determined and work hard and hard work goes a long way, too,” he said. “And just because you are talented doesn’t always mean that you have the best team, either. I think we have a good mixture of both talent and hard workers.”
Five starters from last spring are seniors, Evan Herman, Drake Gehrs, Andrew Roach, Blake Hagler and Cory Stieb. Ben Wille, a junior, is the other returning starter.
Perhaps nobody is more vital to the offensive success than Herman, an explosive forward who led the Bulldogs in scoring a year ago after pumping in a team-high 15 goals and dishing out a team-best seven assists.
“Evan (Herman) had a great year, and he is going to be a big part of what we do,” Oswald said.
After losing Brent Rapien, Lucas Ammann, Brendan Schrage and Montana Gilbert to graduation, some spots have opened up on the wings for the chance to play next to Herman.
“Whoever fills those spots on the wings have got some big shoes to fill, because there were a lot of goals from those seniors last year,” Oswald said.
Roach will play a lot at center midfield and possibly see some time as a wing forward, as will Wille. Last season, Roach had three goals and four assists.
Oswald is hoping to shore up the backfield with the loss of stalwart defender Brett Korte.
Gehrs will be a vital mainstay in the left backfield but he can also get involved in the attack at any time. He produced four goals and four assists a year ago.
Hagler will be important in the center backfield, as will junior Nick Sikora, who got some varsity playing time two years ago as a freshman. Sikora returns to the Bulldogs after spending last year in the academy program.
Stieb will play an important role as a defensive center midfielder.
With the graduation of reliable goalkeeper Luke Jones, junior Riley Field will take over in the net.
“Riley has looked good, and he did some camps and put the work in this summer. So we’re looking forward to see what he can do,” Oswald said. “This is Riley’s first crack at getting some varsity experience. We’re not asking him to be Luke Jones, we’re just asking him to be Riley Field, and I think he is more than capable of doing the job back there for us.”
Backup goalies are first-year senior Robert Sigman and freshman Dustin Vogel.
Expectations don’t change
Just because the team is less experienced this season, Oswald said the expectations are not diminished.
“Our expectations stay the same,” Oswald said. “We won conference last year, and this group’s job is to try and defend it. Our goal is to repeat as conference champions, and I think that is one thing that we can all strive for. If we put in the work, I think we still have the players who can do that. We also want to get back to winning regionals, and we still want to win a sectional and go on to state from there.”
Triad and Waterloo are always the tough ones to challenge Highland for the Mississippi Valley Conference title. And just like Highland, both Triad and Waterloo also got hit hard by graduation.
“Triad and Waterloo both lost their fair share of high quality players. So, in all honesty, a lot of teams in the conference are rebuilding,” Oswald said. “A lot of us in the Mississippi Valley are kind of all in the same boat.”
Highland opens with three tough opponents right out of the gate in the Metro Cup Tournament. The Bulldogs faced Belleville West on Monday, Aug. 21 (after press time), and will play O’Fallon at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 23, and Marion at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 25. All three games are scheduled to be played at Belleville West.
“We have three tough games right away to get started,” Oswald said. “Obviously, our goal is to win it, but, at the same time, it’s a great feeling-out process for us in terms of guys jockeying for spots and finding the right combinations.”