When Greg Van Kannel returned last year to coach the Pickerington High School North girls soccer team after a one-year absence, the adjustment was minimal at best and the Panthers reached a Division I state semifinal.
But having lost 15 players from a year ago to graduation, Van Kannel is spending most of his waking hours leading up to the Panthers' opener Saturday, Aug. 24, at Thomas Worthington figuring out how best to mesh three returning starters with several players who got little, if any, varsity action last year.
"So many great accomplishments and so much leadership left with those girls, and now we're just trying to find the right combinations for this year," said Van Kannel, whose team finished 19-1-2 overall, went 7-0 in the OCC-Ohio Division to win its eighth league championship in 10 seasons and lost to Mason 1-0 in a state semifinal. "In other programs, a lot of the girls (who will play prominent roles this year) would have started. We had so many talented seniors, 15 on a roster of 25, that those girls didn't get a lot of playing time."
The Panthers return three starters in senior forward Morgan Bittengle, junior defender/midfielder Kelly Eisenhauer and junior midfielder Aubrey Lukascko. Others who saw considerable playing time are junior forward Megan Marasco, senior midfielder Morgan Greer, senior goalkeeper Hannah Wilson and sophomore goalie Rachel Kronk.
Last season, Bittengle had eight goals and five assists and Marasco had 10 goals and two assists. Marasco was second on the team in goals behind 2013 graduate Ashlynn Jones, who had 26 goals and six assists and now plays at the University of Memphis.
Kronk and Wilson alternated as the backup goalie behind 2013 graduate Heather Laeufer, who allowed only four goals and now plays at Central Michigan.
The rest of the roster consists of senior midfielder Maggie Brim, senior defender Casey Gerhard, junior midfielder Alex Baldwin, junior forward Emily Thomas, junior defenders Lexi Hebberle and Lauren Hohnberger, sophomore defenders Val Henne and Paige Matijasich, sophomore forward Emma Warns, freshman forward Cameron Shedenhelm and freshman defender Izzy Reibold.
Thomas, a Division I recruit in basketball, missed all but the first two games last season with a broken ankle.
North, which outscored its OCC-Ohio foes 46-3 last year, begins league play Tuesday, Aug. 27, at home against Newark. Van Kannel said the Panthers likely will be working on their tactical adjustments during the first few weeks of the season.
"We're basically redoing the defense because we have only one girl (Eisenhauer) back," Van Kannel said. "We're messing with different formations and putting girls in different positions. Offensively, it'll be pretty much the same style we've always played. We don't want to get too fancy changing things around, but we'll see if we need to."
Tigers coach pleased by numbers, talent
With eight seniors and six starters returning -- not to mention five goalies in the program -- Central coach Jillian Walters is confident her team has the depth and experience to remain competitive in the OCC-Ohio and advance deeper into the postseason.
Last year, the Tigers finished 10-7-1 overall, placed fourth in the league and lost to Westerville Central 2-1 in the second round of the Division I district tournament.
"We have lots of talent, and not just from the upperclassmen. There's a pretty promising freshmen class, too," Walters said. "We have a strong program as a whole right now. We had a lot of girls who were varsity-ready last year but there was talent ahead of them. They should get their shot this year."
Sophomore forward Aisha Suhaiba is the leading scorer among the returnees. She had nine goals last year to rank second on the team behind 2013 graduate Lizzie Awuah (13). Five other starters have returned in senior midfielders Darby Burch and Casidy Simonis, senior defender Emma Safranek, sophomore goalie Jaelyn Cunningham and senior goalie Lisa Slattery.
Cunningham, who played with the U17 U.S. National Team this summer, will split time in goal with Slattery. Both also are capable of playing in the field.
"I don't know if we'll rotate (in goal) quite as much as last year," Walters said. "Lisa will probably be in the field more as a forward or midfielder. We've been lucky the last few years to have keepers who are pretty good at other positions, too."
Also on the team are senior forward Hannah Robson, senior midfielder Rachel Koch, senior defenders Nicole Karavakis and Kalee Nielsen, junior defenders Megan Davis and Alyssa Denney, junior midfielders Taylor Johnson, Stephanie Murray and Lea Reynolds, junior forwards Samantha Oberdorf and Haleigh Young, sophomore forward Ally Hardyman, sophomore defender Kim Orndoff and sophomore midfielder Rachel VanBramer.
Karavakis missed all of last season with a knee injury.
The Tigers opened with a 14-0 win over Northland on Aug. 19 and play host to Lancaster in their OCC-Ohio opener Tuesday, Aug. 27.