Dan Ensign hopes the experience he gained in his first season as Whitehall-Yearling High School boys soccer coach will pay dividends for his team in year two.
The Rams, who finished 4-11-1 overall and 1-4-1 in the MSL-Ohio Division last season, opened Aug. 20 against Teays Valley. They play host to Northland on Tuesday, Aug. 27, and then begin league play Aug. 29 at home against Bexley.
"We want to grow and get some experience," Ensign said. "We want to take home a few wins and progress as soccer players. The main goal is to play as best as we can every game."
The Rams lost six starters from a year ago to graduation, but Ensign has been pleased with the progress of the returning players. That group is led by senior forward/midfielder Nahom Hailu, who scored four goals last season.
"Nahom is going to be a big contributor for us," Ensign said. "He'll play some central (midfielder) or some forward to generate some offense. I would like to have a great year out of him. I hope he's ready to step up for a leadership role, too."
Hailu also is the No. 1 runner on the boys cross country team.
Also back is senior Ethan Miller, who played sweeper last season but is contending with sophomore Dustin Rumer for the starting goalkeeper duties.
"I feel like we're not going to do so well in the first half (of the season), but I feel like we're going to improve a lot because we do have a lot of new players this year," Miller said. "I'm seeing a lot better teamwork than I've seen in the past couple of years."
Other returning players are seniors Kelvin Lemus (defender/midfielder) and Charles Wrenn (defender) and juniors Michael Berhanue (defender), Heber Luna (midfielder) and Axel Tello (midfielder).
Other players are juniors Yuri Artega (midfielder), Daniel Bravo (forward) and Bryce Klabunde (midfielder), sophomores Justin Gass (midfielder/forward) and Mateo Miranda (midfielder) and freshmen Trevor Brockman (midfielder), Daveon Jemmott (midfielder), Branham Kipruto (midfielder), Eric Licea (midfielder), Jonathan Melendez (goalie/midfielder), Tamagne Shiferaw (forward/midfielder), Kalynn Smith (midfielder), Joshua Turcios (midfielder) and Angoson Weldu (midfielder/forward).
Ensign expects Weldu to make a strong contribution.
"He's a freshman, but he's going to play a lot," Ensign said. "He's a scrappy guy and he has some good foot skills. He's very fast."
A key loss to graduation was Mohamed Toure, who was the team's leading scorer last season with eight goals and was honorable mention all-league.
Among other 2013 graduates, Samson Edessa and Jose Vargas each scored four goals.
"We graduated a lot of good guys and we're hoping some of the younger guys step up and fill in that space," Ensign said. "We wanted to be a little bit more in shape this year than we were last year. That was a big thing."
Ensign said he expects to field a solid defensive team and hopes the Rams can develop some consistency on offense.
"I'm a little worried about generating some offense in terms of goal scoring and in terms of actually capitalizing and getting a lot of goals in," he said.
"Our defense will be fairly solid. We'll have to rely on them quite a bit to win some games."
Whitehall, Bexley and Columbus Academy have remained in the realigned MSL-Ohio, which also includes Grandview, Grove City Christian, London, West Jefferson and Worthington Christian for boys soccer. Madison Plains also is in the league, but isn't fielding a team.
Grove City Christian will compete in the MSL-Cardinal in other sports.
Worthington Christian made its eighth consecutive appearance in the state tournament last season, losing to Cincinnati Summit Country Day 3-0 in a Division III state semifinal. The Warriors won state titles in 2009 and 2011 and were runners-up in 2010.
"We're hoping and ready for the challenge," Ensign said. "It's going to be interesting to see how this plays out."
Hailu, Hatfield lead cross country teams
Although he is concerned about his program's depth, cross country coach Robert Taylor expects a pair of runners to stand out this season.
For the boys team, Hailu returns after leading the Rams in the Division II regional meet last season by finishing 23rd (17 minutes, 20.02 seconds) of 131 runners.
"We have high hopes for Nahom," Taylor said. "He works real hard, so we're really focusing on him."
Whitehall finished 14th (274 points) behind champion Granville (44) in the 16-team regional, as the top four teams and top 16 individuals advanced to state.
"We lost a lot of kids from that squad and we're pretty thin this year," Taylor said. "Not only through graduation losses, but I've lost some kids at least temporarily to jobs (and) kids have moved. I have some kids who were on varsity last year who are focusing on other sports right now. They're unsure whether they're going to run or not. We definitely have a thinner squad to start the year than we did last year."
The other returning regional competitor is senior Anthony Spaulding, who was 124th (20:06.21).
Senior Jaiwen Zhen also returns.
Taylor said several freshmen are contending for the remaining spots, as the addition of a middle school program last year has helped in the development of the younger runners.
The biggest loss to graduation was Abiel Kiflu, who was 32nd (17:39.1) at regional last year.
For the girls, senior Ashley Hatfield returns after finishing 63rd (24:10.7) of 121 runners at district.
"Ashley is a good leader," Taylor said. "I hope she has some success."
The team's other returning runner is senior Katheryne Ortiz, who was 104th (28:06.05) at district.
Taylor said he will attempt to add runners to the boys and girls teams once school begins Sept. 4.
Whitehall will compete in Division I this season.
"If we get our numbers up and get a regular group of kids out, we can rise to the competition in a few years," Taylor said.