The Highland High School girls soccer team took a big hit with almost as many girls leaving the program as it currently has on the roster, and coach Josh Oswald was worried for a bit that the program would not be able to field a junior varsity team.
However, an influx of newcomers has helped ease those concerns, and the Lady Bulldogs bring back a nice core from last year's squad that posted the second-best record in school history at 14-6-3 and broke the school record for shutouts in a season.
"We do return a good core of our team," Oswald said. "We're really strong with nine or 10 of them coming back, but we're just not going to have a whole lot of depth that we're accustomed to, and being able to sub people in frequently. We're going to have to keep these girls fresh, but at the same time, I think they realize that they've got a lot on their shoulders, and they are going to have to log a lot of minutes, and a lot of our success is going to come from them. And it's good to have a few of them showing the young ones the ropes."
Leading the returners is junior forward Audrey Wilke, who led the team in scoring last year with 13 goals, with eight of them being game-winning tallies.
Senior Morgan Pace will join Wilke up top as a striker.
"Aubrey will stay up top, and I see her finishing a lot of goals again this year," Oswald said.
Senior Morgan Zobrist returns to backstop the Lady Bulldogs between the goal posts. She and her defense teamed up to help Highland establish a new school record with 14 shutouts in 2017.
"Morgan did great in net last year, and she's worked hard to put herself in this situation to succeed and be a good goaltender," Oswald said. "She cares deeply about the team, and that's going to carry a long ways, too. She's picked up some leadership roles, and I wouldn't have pegged Morgan as a leader when she came in as a freshman. Now, here she is as a senior leader, and that's good to see."
At center midfield will be senior Kallie Painter, who led the team in assists last year with nine to go along with three goals, and junior Jaqyln Ferguson, who will be moving up from the defense.
"We're going to push Jaqlyn up a little bit and try to get her and Kallie connecting some passes with Aubrey and Morgan," Oswald said.
Junior Rachel Miller returns to the center backfield after already having two strong seasons there.
"We need her to shoulder that backline load, and I think she will do a fantastic job with it," Oswald said. "She is a phenomenal player and has already had two high-level seasons, already. I am really looking forward to seeing what she can do back there. "
Jaida Duncan and Kealy Korte have been two mainstays in the defensive corps and will now have even bigger roles.
In addition, Ashlen DeLuca will more than likely split her time between the defense and midfield.
"We're going to have a strong backline and defense with Morgan (Zobrist), Rachel, Ashlen, Jaida and Kealy back there," Oswald said.
After that top core group, Oswald said he will have to wait and see which of the 13 newcomers to the program will be able to step up to assert themselves and help out.
After the program lost about 19 or 20 girls to graduation, switching sports, quitting, moving or being injured, numbers were such a concern that he was worried about being able to field a junior varsity this season.
"That's going to be different and a challenge for us, but we're excited and very thankful that the 13 new girls did come out, so we're able to still keep the two teams (varsity and JV)," Oswald said. "It's going to be tough managing a roster with only 23 girls total, but it's something we can do, and we can manage. I would imagine a couple of girls are going to have to play both ways, just to give us some depth. There's probably nine or 10 (at both levels) that are going to have to play a lot of minutes, and we'll probably sprinkle in a couple of subs to give them breathers when we can."
Oswald said there will most likely be many changes in lineup over the course of the season.
"We have a lot of new faces, and we'll eventually get it worked out. It's a challenging task, but our expectations still should be the same," he said.
As is the case every year, Triad will be the odds-on favorite to win the Mississippi Valley Conference championship. The Knights have still never lost conference game in girls soccer. Last year, Triad went 22-6 and captured the program's second Class 2A state title.
"Triad is the defending state champions, and they still never lost a game in our conference, so they have a huge target on their back," Oswald said. "We're always gunning to try and be the first ones to give them that first 'L'. I am sure they lost a few girls, but they always reload. I would say Triad and Waterloo will, obviously, be at the top, and we'll see where the rest of us fall into place. "