The Shenandoah District boys’ soccer season is shaping up to be a competitive race this season and the four Augusta County teams are looking to be in the thick of the battle.
The Gladiators, who were the Conference 36 champs last year, lost five seniors from last year’s squad that advanced to the Group 2A state quarterfinals. Second-year coach Scott Harrison has some capable players to step in this year.
Senior forward James Kasak, who is bound for Virginia Tech in the fall, again will be the Gladiators’ top scoring threat. He had 57 goals and 25 assists last season, earning first-team Group 2A all-state honors.
Senior Elijah Knopp returns at midfield, where he scored 29 goals and 38 assists. On defense, Riverheads will look to senior Tristan Robson — a first-team Group 2A all-state defender last year, junior Rinaldo Martina, and goalkeeper Chandler McLister to lead the way. Of the new players, freshman Isaiah Knopp shows promise.
“Speed at the forward and the back should be a strength as well as five starters have travel club experience,” Harrison said. “We will be a smaller team with a number of new players.”
Harrison looks to Stuarts Draft and Wilson Memorial to be teams to beat in the district race.
“Following a good showing last year we hope to return to state play,” Harrison said. “To do so we will need to play as a team moving forward. We also need to prevent injuries and conditioning will be important too. Focus, intensity and a little luck will help us work toward our goal.”
The Hornets welcome back seven starters from last year’s squad that was 13-6 overall, shared the regular season district title with Riverheads and advanced to the first round of the state playoffs.
Wygant looks forward to the experience his team brings to this season. Attackers Parker Robson and Paul Luong, midfielders Nick Racine and Kyle Bryant, defenders Garret McBee and Caleb Conyers, and Jared Moore in goal.
“We are a strong possession team that can pass the ball very well,” Wygant said. “We have a great deal of experience and soccer intelligence on the field and our team is improving in that regard everyday. There are times that we are a little too unselfish, passing instead of taking the shot. I’m hoping that when we get into games we won’t be so unselfish.”
Wygant sees the district getting stronger and stronger each year with R.E. Lee and Stuarts Draft especially better this year.
“Our guys have impressed me with their desire to get better and work hard everyday. They have set high expectations for themselves and are putting in an immense amount of work to achieve them,” he said.
The Cougars welcome a new coach in Paige Adams and also have solid nucleus of returning players.
Forward J.P. Rader, center midfield Caleb Oakes, defender Jacob Wyrick and goalkeeper Ryan Thompson are the top returners.
“We have a solid number of goal scorers,” Adams said. “J.P. Rader and Caleb Oakes are top skilled players. We have a solid core of players in key positions.”
Adams looks for a lot of hard fought games in the district with strong opponents being Riverheads, Wilson Memorial and East Rockingham.
“Our guys are very positive and are anxious to get to play at a high level,” Adams said. “I believe that our guys have the talent and desire to perform very well throughout the season.”
The Bison are coming off a 7-11 season that was the most wins for the school over the past five years.
Fifth-year coach Dustin Zickefoose lost record-setting striker Seth Long to graduation but is excited about the returning players.
Defender Thomas Delange, midfielder Jacob Houle along with seniors Josh Mason, Nick Cook and Coltane Hoke are the top returners.
“This is the most athletic team that I have had and we have lots of senior leadership,” said Zickefoose. “We lack a go-to striker and there is not much raw soccer talent out there, but I think that we make up for it in heart. These kids are competitive.”
As for the district contenders, Zickefoose points to Riverheads and Wilson as the teams to beat.
A challenging early season slate awaits the Bison.
“I think the keys of the season depend on how we face the beginning of our schedule,” said Zickefoose. “We face the strength of our schedule right away. We are just so raw right now that the beginning of the season there will be a huge learning curve. I don’t mind the challenge.
“We will have to search for positives as we grow and maybe steal one of these games,” he added. “Our goal is to be better at the end of the season than we were at the beginning.”