The air is slowly getting warmer (kind of), and spring is here (so the calendar says). The change of seasons brings another slate of high school sports — in this case, soccer has returned to fields across the state.
The 2017 Iowa high school season officially kicks off Thursday evening. The usual suspects will contend and many others will emerge with the hopes of reaching the state tournament at Cownie Soccer Park in early June.
Let’s Take Five to look at what to watch for on the pitch.
Valley nationally ranked
The Valley boys have long been a staple near the top of the Iowa rankings. Over the past three seasons, the Tigers are a combined 52-10, with the run of success culminating in last season’s Class 3A state championship. Even loftier expectations await this year.
Valley enters the 2017 season with a national ranking, too. The Tigers check in at No. 16 in the USA TODAY High School Sports/National Soccer Coaches Association of America Rankings. They open at Fort Dodge on Thursday.
“We know there’s a big target on our back,” Valley coach Aziz Haffar said. “It’s not going to be easy. Winning a championship is always a struggle, but our goal is to hold that trophy over our heads again. We have a lot of work to do to get there.”
The Tigers went 22-1 a year ago thanks largely to 3A’s best offense. They scored 107 goals overall and tallied five or more in 10 different games. In the state final against Iowa City High, which had allowed five goals all season, Valley scored three.
Three of Valley’s top five scorers are back, including senior Ryan Johnston, who scored 27 goals and assisted on another 22. Two more returning seniors in Aaron Williams and Julius Cooper scored 20 and 12 goals, respectively, a year ago.
Haffar said that hungry newcomers will also play significant roles. In addition to Johnston, Williams and Cooper, juniors Jordy Triana and Connor Russo will help lead them this season.
“We need to have better effort and better preparation,” Haffar said. “Everything has to be better … last year was a very special year for us, but we need to continue working on our game every day. We still have a lot of room for improvement.
“We have the pieces. We have the potential to be good, but how good are we going to be? They have to put in the work.”
CIML boys: More balance
The CIML has long housed some of the state’s best boys’ soccer programs. Before Valley climbed to the top of the standings, Johnston reached state three straight seasons.Ames, Ankeny, and Ankeny Centennial have routinely been in the mix as well.
The Little Cyclones, after taking third in Class 3A a year ago, return four of their top five scorers. Divyesh Kumar, Ben Klein, Felipe Hermann and Sam Egberth combined to score 65 percent of Ames’ goals last season.
Both Ankeny teams return key players from last season. Kolby Raineri put up 12 goals for the Hawks as a freshman and will be expected to score more again this year. For the Jaguars, Blake Robinson and Jake Pinegar combined for 13 goals and eight assists en route to 11 victories.
Des Moines Roosevelt appears poised to make another run after reaching state last season for the first time since 2010. The Roughriders return nine starters, including senior Zech Khalifa, who scored 16 goals.
CIML girls: More goals
The Ankeny Centennial girls won the Class 3A state title a year ago behind a pair of 20-goal scorers in Meg Brandt and Claire Dahm. Together, they combined for 45 goals and led the Jaguars to a 21-1 overall record.
But both have graduated, so who will take their place among the CIML’s topscorers for 2017?
About a half-hour north of Ankeny sits Ames High School, home of junior Grace Nelson, who scored 20 goals last season for the Little Cyclones. Nelson is the league’s leading returning scorer. Many more aren’t far behind.
Valley’s Libby Helverson, now a junior, scored 16 goals a year ago to lead the Tigers. Mason City senior Kaitlin O’Neill put up another 15 and five assists. Waukee’s Rebecca Corbett scored 13 goals and added 13 assists, while Dowling’s Vivian Broderick recorded 12 and eight, respectively.
There are plenty of big names to watch on the girls’ side of the CIML this season. It is set to be as competitive as ever — last year’s state tournament featured three teams from the league. Four made the final eight in 2015.
Other boys’ teams to watch
- Iowa City, City High: Five straight state appearances. Always tough to play, and returns four starters.
- Iowa City West: Every bit as good as its cross-town rival, with an arguably better long-term resume. Returns five starters.
- Linn-Mar (Marion): Returns five starters, including Leroy Enzugusi, who scored 27 of team’s 93 total goals last season.
- Cedar Rapids Washington: Returns eight starters from last year’s fourth-place team, including both leading scorers.
- Cedar Rapids Xavier: Seven returning starters from last year’s state qualifier team. Plays tough 3A schedule before dropping down for postseason.
- Norwalk: Returning 2A state champs have eight starters back. Only losses last year were to 3A teams.
- Dyersville Beckman: Carrying a 40-game winning streak, and has won 59 of last 60 games. Back-to-back defending 1A state champs.
The boys’ substate rounds are set for May 22, 24 and 27. The substate assignments will be posted the week of April 24, and the pairings will be up the week of May 8. The state tournament is scheduled for June 1-3 at Cownie Soccer Park in Des Moines.
The girls’ regional dates are set for May 30, June 2 and 5 for Class 1A; May 25, 30 and June 5 for 2A; and May 27, 31 and June 5 for Class 3A. The state tournament is scheduled for June 8-10 at Cownie.
Cody Goodwin covers high school sports, college basketball recruiting and Drake athletics for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.