A new girls soccer season once again brings lofty expectations for the Northridge Raiders.
The Raiders are looking for a three-peat when it comes to Northern Lakes Conference and sectional titles.
New faces will play a role this year in the Raiders quest for more championships.
There's a new coach directing the program, as Chris Malott replaces Thavisith Mounsithiraj.
Malott was the varsity girls soccer coach at Elkhart Central from 2012-16. For the Blue Blazers, he compiled a 38-41-4 record, including a 10-5-1 overall record and an 8-2 Northern Indiana Conference mark in his last season. In 2017, Malott was the junior varsity girls soccer coach at Northridge and last year he was promoted to varsity assistant.
Malott has the challenge of replacing first team all-conference players Ariana Stoltzfus, Sage Schnell, Emma Oxenrider and Madison Sorg.
Stoltzfus, who signed to play soccer at Spring Arbor University, finished with school records for career goals, single-season goals and career points.
The good news is the Raiders have a solid nucleus returning in seniors Leah Stacker, Hope Stacker, Betsy Wertman and Shelby Herschop, along with junior Madison Wienert. The Stacker's were first team all-conference selections and Wertman was an all-conference honorable mention pick.
Hope, who was also an all-state honorable mention selection as a goalie, allowed only 10 goals, had 49 saves and two penalty kick saves over 18 games. Offensively, Wienert finished with seven goals and seven assists, while Herschop had three goals and four assists.
"We have a talented group of girls trying to figure out their roles as we graduated seven starters," said Malott. "We have a few girls who have seen 40 varsity games in the last two years and some who have seen none. We're starting to click and the more we play together and practice as a group the more we'll mesh.
"We start with a very tough four game stretch, but for me no matter how we come out of that stretch, I just want to see us grow as a team and start to figure things out. We start our conference schedule around Labor Day and our goal is to be clicking on all cylinders at that point and hopefully once again bring home the NLC title."
Concord compiled a 7-9-1 overall record and placed fourth in the NLC last year.
The Minutemen will be led by senior Lauren Pollock, who was an honorable mention all-conference selection last year.
"We're a young team that will continue to grow throughout the season," said Concord coach Adam Kirkpatrick. "Our success this year will depend on our ability to respond to adversity. We'll need to be mentally tough and disciplined. I think we have the potential to surprise some teams this year."
There are new coaches leading Goshen and NorthWood in 2019.
For the RedHawks, Myron Bontreger replaces Dan Graber.
Bontreger takes over a program which finished 2-5 in the NLC and 8-10 overall last fall.
But the RedHawks played well at the end of last season. Goshen fought hard before losing, 2-1, in a sectional final to Northridge.
Goshen's top players are seniors Regan Mast, Jocelyn Valderrama, Hailey Mast, juniors Joya Drenth and Maddie Swallow and sophomores Alessandra Lozano and Abril Diaz.
"This is a great group of girls to work with," Bontreger said. "They're technically skilled, hard working and coachable. We'll be young at a few key positions, but balanced with experienced players at other spots. We don't have a lot of overall team speed so we'll need to be organized, value possessions and try to take advantage of set plays."
Tom Shields, who takes over for Phil Ummel at NorthWood, has 31 years of coaching experience. In recent years, Shields has been a coach for the NorthWood boys and girls soccer programs.
Returning letterwinners from last year's 9-7-3 squad are sophomore Emma Martz (6 goals, 7 assists) and seniors Olivia Craven (3 goals), Kaicee Egolf, Caroline Jenkins and Ariana Runge. Those veterans have bigger roles this year because NorthWood lost 13 seniors.
"These girls work very hard together and work as a unit," said Shields. "It will be hard to tell who our top player will be as they all bring different strengths to the field.
It's an emotional season for Elkhart Memorial, which is in its final year as a program with the combining of Memorial and Elkhart Central into one school in the fall of 2020.
The Crimson Chargers will be led by junior Kelsey Knowlton, who was a first team all-conference selection last year.
"We have a mix of experienced players with some new athletic players that have balanced our defense and offense," said coach Don Knowlton. "Jahlea Douglas and Andy Puga will lead our team at our midfield and defensive positions. Hannah Smith give us speed up top at striker and Kelsey Knowlton brings toughness to our center midfield position."
The favorite to win the Northern Indiana Conference should once again be Penn. The Kingsmen are looking for their sixth straight conference title and 13th straight sectional title. Penn was state champions in 2016 and 2017.
This year, Penn coach Jeff Hart will build around the nucleus of seniors Abbie Clay, Grace Szklarek and Kelsi Carrico.
Clay, who plays goalie, has verbally committed to play soccer at Indiana Wesleyan. Szklarek, who's the leading returning goal scorer, will be a four-year member of the varsity, while Carrico enters her fourth year as a varsity starter. Carrico has committed to play soccer at Purdue. She was a second team all-state selection last year.
"We've had two large, outstanding classes back-to-back that helped set a program standard that our current players have embraced on and off the field," said Hart.
"We've got another big senior class, but we'll count on numerous younger players to contribute. We're replacing a number of starters, but I'm excited to see this team grow during our tough regular season schedule."
There's a mix of experience and youth at Elkhart Central.
Seniors back from last year's squad, which finished 7-7-2 and lost to Northridge, 1-0, in a penalty kick shootout in a sectional semifinal, are Kelsey Stone (NIC honorable mention), Julia Ramirez and Elley Kuehne. Joining that group as a sophomore that should provide some offensive production is Macy Metcalf (10 goals, 3 assists).
"These seniors are holdovers from a very talented group of players that emerged four or five years ago," said Blue Blazers coach Patrick Nussbaum.
"But there's also a very promising youth movement with sophomores Macy Metcalf and Leslie Barriga and freshmen Savannah Tully, Ana Hernandez, Erika Perez and Yuritzi Alvarez, along with a handful of others that will soon challenge for time on the field."
A second year of girls soccer is ready to get underway at Jimtown and the popularity seems to be growing.
"Last year we started with seven players and this year we have a full roster of 23," said Jimtown coach Kalen Saddler. "The program is growing rapidly and the culture is starting to set in."
The Jimmies will be led by seniors Grace Crocker and Mikayla Morales, along with sophomore Renee Anderson. Crocker was Jimtown's top goal scorer last year.
A young player that Saddler is excited to coach is freshman Abigail Sanders.
"She'll be a player to keep an eye on this season," Saddler said about Sanders. "Abigail brings experience, leadership and an eye for goals to the table."
Elkhart Christian returns three, four-year starters (Peyton Badskey in goal, Shealey Skaggs and Abbie Suiter) and three of its top four leading scorers from last year (Abi Lollis, Emily Gray and Audra Badskey). Peyton Badskey has been all-Northern Indiana Soccer Conference selection her first three years and Skaggs has earned an all-conference honor.
"Despite having only 13 on the roster last year and playing multiple games with only nine or 10, we found a way to improve from 4-12 in 2017 to 6-10 last year," said ECA coach Joel Badskey.
"I fully expect to improve up that record again this year with a lot of hard work and determination. I'm excited about building on the foundation we set last year. In addition, I'm equally excited about the new blood that has joined the team."
Bethany Christian finished 9-7-1 a year ago and has back from that team seniors Caroline Cartmel, Sarah Hochstetler, Karina Kern, Macinsy Sanchez and Emma Thomas.
"The team chemistry has been good in the preseason," said Bruins coach Joel Gonzalez. "We have players that can play a variety of different positions. We're excited to begin another season and we hope to do well at the sectional this year."