The Whetstone High School boys soccer team is looking to defend its City League championship.
However, the Braves have undergone major changes since defeating Walnut Ridge 2-1 last season at Crew Stadium to capture their first City title since 2003. Not only did they lose 15 players to graduation, but they underwent a coaching change, as Kerry Nixon stepped down and was replaced by Larry Howell.
Whetstone, which finished 11-6-1 overall and 9-2-1 in the City League a year ago, opens Thursday, Aug. 22, at home against Beechcroft in a league contest. This season, the City is divided into North and South divisions, with the winners of each division meeting in the City championship game.
The Braves are in the City-North with Beechcroft, Brookhaven, Centennial, Columbus International, Mifflin and Northland and will play each opponent twice.
"We have a lot of experience back, but not a lot of starters," said Howell, who coached the Centennial girls team the past three seasons. "But I think once we get a few matches under our belts and become comfortable and learn where each other will be, we'll be fine. There's also a growing curve between players and coaches.
"That said, our goals are to win the City championship and be competitive in the non-league schedule. Winning a game or two in district would be a good step."
Whetstone, which beat Logan 5-2 in the first round of the Division I district tournament last year before losing to eventual state champion Olentangy Liberty 8-0 in the second round, lost its top two scorers to graduation in Christian Wilsbach (18 goals) and Matt Dascenzo (5 goals, 9 assists) but returns its third-leading scorer in senior forward Collin Tuttle (6 goals, 1 assist).
Tuttle and Dascenzo each had a goal in the City championship game.
Seven seniors, including Tuttle, will begin the season in the starting lineup for the Braves, who will utilize a 4-4-2 formation.
"We've got great senior leadership and a solid defense," Howell said. "We're learning to possess the ball better and space the field."
Tuttle primarily will play forward but also is expected to see time as a central midfielder, as is sophomore Evan McCullough. Junior Yussuf Ibrow will start in the central midfield and also is expected to see time as a forward.
Seniors Felix Mak and Justin Tartler and sophomore Sidney Musuni will be the starting outside midfielders.
"Tuttle is a good team leader, has solid footwork and a good boot and he should lead us offensively," Howell said. "McCullough also has good footwork and possesses (the ball) well and passes it well.
"Musuni has good sight, distributes well, is good defensively and has a great knowledge of the game."
Senior Colin McCoy will be the starting goalkeeper and senior sweeper Bert Pajor, sophomore stopper Akeem Adesjii and senior outside defenders Jake Tartler and Chuck Guillespie will start on defense.
"I really think we have the people in place to have a strong defense," Howell said. "That could be the key for us."
Girls soccer team also seeks to repeat
The girls soccer team also is looking to repeat as the City League champion.
Seven starters return for the Braves, who finished 8-6 overall and 5-0 in the City and defeated Centennial 3-2 in overtime in the second-annual City title game at Crew Stadium. The Braves lost to Centennial 1-0 in overtime in the inaugural contest in 2011.
This season, each City team will play its five league opponents twice, with the top two teams meeting in the City championship game. In addition to Whetstone and Centennial, the league is comprised of Beechcroft, Columbus East, Columbus International and Northland.
Among the returning starters are senior midfielders Liz Jackson and Emma Van Dommelen, senior forward Marlee Christian and senior defender Maddy O'Malley. The four will share captain duties.
"All of those girls are four-year starters," said coach Phil Labuhn, whose team opened Aug. 20 against Teays Valley and begins City play Thursday, Aug. 22, at Beechcroft. "Jackson is pretty strong, our most physical player. She also has our best throw-in. O'Malley and (senior) Hannah Shook will be our anchors in the back. O'Malley is our fastest girl and we could move her up front some, too."
The other returning starters are junior midfielder Rita Knasel and sophomore defenders Sydney Carroll and Hannah Davey.
"We haven't settled on any lineup just yet because 13 of the 24 girls are newcomers to varsity and several are new to the sport," Labuhn said. "But a number of them will contribute immediately, having shown that they are game ready at this early stage of the season."
According to Labuhn, others expected to be key contributors are senior defender Kalie Mascarello, senior midfielder Alex Kohler, sophomore goalie Cecelia Bulgrin and freshman forward Bailey Waitkus.
"The strengths of this team look to be our overall team speed and a solid defensive core," Labuhn said. "We do need to work on finishing in the offensive third of the field. The key for us will be playing together as one unit on the pitch.
"Our goals are to go undefeated in league play and to win the City championship game. I think Centennial will again be our toughest league challenge."