With just one returning letterwinner, the Licking Heights High School boys soccer team will be building from the ground up this season.
Junior defender Caleb Hilderbrand is the only playing link to last year's team, which finished 11-6-1 overall and won the program's first two postseason games. The Hornets, who also finished second (3-1-1) behind Grandview (5-0) in their final year in the MSL-Cardinal Division, lost to second-seeded Watterson 4-0 in a Division II district semifinal. They defeated Jonathan Alder 1-0 in the first round and Beechcroft 3-0 in the second round.
"We lack experience, without a doubt," second-year coach Zach Grubb said. "But we do have some raw talent and it's my job to piece things together where we can compete. We want to jell in time to have a winning record and to improve every day. Those are our goals."
Licking Heights will compete in the Licking County League, in which Grubb expects Granville and Watkins Memorial to be the favorites. The Hornets lost to Granville 8-0 in the opener Aug. 22 and play host to Watkins Memorial on Tuesday, Aug. 27. Their first five contests are home games.
Although the LCL consists of 10 schools, Newark Catholic and Utica do not have boys soccer teams.
Hilderbrand is expected to lead the defense along with sophomore Zach Coverdale.
"Hilderbrand brings experience and leadership by example," Grubb said. "He always goes 110 percent. Coverdale is more vocal and should be a leader in the back, too."
They are expected to be joined in the 2-4-4 formation by juniors Cameron Sadilek and Marcos Yilmea. Freshmen Patrick Kenney and Sundiaia Fonata also are expected to contribute on defense in front of sophomore goalkeeper Nate Hasson.
The midfield is expected to be comprised of senior Sulayman Ceesay, junior Gauthier Murat and sophomores Cameron Christian and Ben Hunkler.
"Ceesay has obviously played a lot of soccer, but has never played high school varsity soccer," Grubb said. "He knows the sport and is very good. He's confident and he handles the ball well.
"Christian also is confident and a good ball-handler. He can work the ball up the side and he distributes well. He can play anywhere on the field and I like that versatility moving forward as we try to find the right combinations."
Expected to start at forward are junior Tajon Herring and freshman Carrick Duffey. Sophomores Dylan Billingsley and Zane Estep also are slated to see time in the midfield or at forward.
"The keys for us will be working together, playing with confidence and being physical," Grubb said. "The quicker we become comfortable with one another, the sooner we'll begin to see improvement."
Girls to play first varsity schedule
The girls soccer program began last season with a junior varsity schedule.
The varsity program began in earnest Aug. 19 when the Hornets lost to Big Walnut 12-0.
"We know it's going to be a struggle in terms of our record because we're playing against established programs," said coach Michelle Lisy, who also guided the team last year and is assisted by Ashley Tolliver. "But what we're going to look at is gaining experience and seeking improvement.
"We have a few girls who have played club or travel soccer, but our opponents have full rosters of those types of players. We're just getting started and scratching the surface."
The roster is comprised of 17 players, with one senior and three freshmen. Lisy said all will get playing time, and she plans to rotate starts at some positions.
"We have a core of nine players, but the other two positions, one a forward and another in the midfield, we'll move people in and out until we come up with the right mix of players," she said.
Junior Rachel Bernthold will start in goal in the 4-4-2 scheme, with junior Jessica Brungs, sophomore Jenna Tishenkel and freshmen Makaylynn Wilcox and Aiyanna Johnson on defense.
"Jenna Tishenkel is our center back who is strong, skilled and smart," Lisy said. "She makes the players around her better. Makaylynn Wilcox will be playing right beside her and is Jenna's 'mini-me.'"
The midfield features juniors Amber Dunkle and Taylor Moss and sophomore Ellie Pastor. The other expected full-time starter is junior forward Madison Dixon.
"Madison Dixon is a fast, elusive forward who is a goal-scoring threat," Lisy said. "Ellie Pastor is versatile and can distribute the ball from almost any position on the field."
Rounding out the roster are senior Taylor Runyan, juniors Ka'la Adams and Chelsea Grills, sophomores Jordane Broomfield, Mekhayla Diaw, Julia Malone and Aliya Tart and freshman Rina Neiswander.
"We are a strong, physical team with a good work rate," Lisy said. "But we have so many players who are new to the sport with limited experience. Our young and inexperienced players will have to learn fast for us to be successful.
"But as long as we work hard and improve, that's our main goal. I was happy with how hard we played until the end against Big Walnut and happy with our attitude. We made some in-game adjustments that worked. We just need to stay positive and continue working."
The Hornets opened LCL play Aug. 22 with a 13-0 loss at Granville. Out of the 10 LCL schools, Newark Catholic, Northridge and Utica do not offer girls soccer.
Football team ready to kick off season
Coach Darren Waters believes the football team is ready to make a statement, beginning with the opener Friday, Aug. 30, at home against Mifflin.
"We're coming off a 10-1 season and people have questioned our schedule," Waters said. "We're going into the LCL and will play against bigger schools. We tweaked our non-league schedule to prepare for that. Because we're in the LCL, there will be more computer points available to us. So we don't have to go 10-0 to make the playoffs now. You want to win every game, but it's not a necessity.
"I understand the reasons why others might've doubted us before. So we don't mind kind of flying under the radar. But I'm sure the boys have enough pride that they want to change people's perspectives. I wouldn't say we have something to prove, but ..."
Mifflin went 7-3 last season. The Punchers lost most of their skill-position players to graduation but return a lot of experienced linemen.
"I've got four out of my five offensive linemen from last year returning and I don't know if all of them can make the starting lineup," coach Gregg Miller said. "Some of them got in the weight room, and we had a couple move-ins. I'm probably three deep on the offensive line."
The Hornets return seven starters on both sides of the ball and have 24 letterwinners.
Adrian Myrthil will be the quarterback in the I-formation offense. Kendall Bradley (RB), John Neary (FB) and Aaron Tiller (H-back) can line up in the backfield, and David Lancaster and Doug Benniefield are the top receivers. Cameron Claborn and Mike Hopewell are both two-way linemen.
In the 4-4 defense, Neary and Darrell Kelso are inside linebackers, Tiller and Ross Friel are ends, Benniefield is at outside linebacker and Myrthil is in the secondary.