Last year was one for the books in prep soccer in the Kanawha Valley.
Four schools in the Valley — George Washington, Hurricane, Winfield and Charleston Catholic — accounted for eight of the 16 teams in the state tournament (counting boys and girls teams), with the GW and Winfield boys as well as the Hurricane girls all claiming state championships.
That leaves a ton of expectations hovering over those eight programs as well as other schools in the Valley trying to run them down en route to making some history of their own.
As practice opens this week, here are 10 story lines to watch during the upcoming season.
1New faces in new places. Two of the programs at last year’s state tournament — Hurricane boys and Winfield girls — enter the 2019 season with new coaches in place. Cody Freas takes over for the Redskins after serving as an assistant under Jim Dagostine for a year while Smith returns to her old stomping grounds to take over for her high school coach, Marshall Hoff. Both will be hit with big-time expectations, especially Smith, who inherits a senior-laden roster full of talent and experience. Elsewhere, Brandon Lacy takes over for Ryne Eich with the Nitro boys with the Wildcats just two years removed from a Class AA-A state title. Gone are stalwarts Zander Schmitt, Andrew Mahairas and Justin Mayfield, all first-team All-Staters a year ago.
2 Just how good can Bailey Fisher be? Fisher burst onto the scene a year ago, scoring 36 goals in the regular season, sectionals and regionals in earning Kanawha Valley Rookie of the Year honors. But at the state tournament in Beckley, she introduced herself more formally to the state, scoring all three goals in an opening 3-1 win over Hedgesville and then added another goal and a penalty kick against Wheeling Park in the state title game. She has the athleticism and scoring instinct to join the ranks of Cabell Midland’s Emilie Charles in the discussion as the best female player in the state. One of the most interesting things to watch this season may be just how far Fisher can take it in this her second year.
3 How does Charleston Catholic’s boys team replace its defensive back line? Though the season ended in disappointment with a 3-2 loss to East Fairmont in the Class AA-A semifinals, it was still a remarkable year for the Irish. Much of that was due to its stellar defense with Kanawha Valley Player of the Year Ethan Malinoski in goal and fronted by senior defenders Michael Hoffman, Tucker Newell and Wilson Meeks. That unit gave up three goals in the regular season and was one of the most dominant groups anywhere in the state. While Catholic returns plenty of skill in seniors David Kershner and Philip Acklin as well as juniors Wil Swan, Aidan Paul, Michael Griffith and Zion Suddeth, how will the Irish replace that pivotal back line? Its success in 2019 may very well depend on it.
4 How does the George Washington girls squad generate more offense? The Patriots girls mirrored the Irish boys in some respects, leaning heavily on a back line anchored by Kanawha Valley Player of the Year Riley Lohan at center back and first-team All-State goalie Katy Darnell. Those two have graduated, and with them went seven more seniors with a total of eight of them starting. GW may well have been hit hardest by graduation of any Kanawha Valley school last year. And though finding replacements in the back will be important, Mary Lyle Smith, who started in goal as a freshman but missed last season with a knee injury, will be back to at least provide some stability. But where the Patriots lacked most was on offense, and with junior Kalissa Lacy and sophomore Linsey Hackney leading the charge, GW will have to be better in terms of scoring to advance past the state semifinals.
5 How will Winfield boys handle being the hunted? After enduring years of heartbreaking postseason shortcomings, the Generals finally broke through, winning the first state title in program history. Like most squads, Winfield has its holes to fill with stalwarts Evan McCray, Coen Preston, Kevin Shrewsbury, Phillip Englund and Dylan Pence having graduated. But year in and year out, the Generals pile up goals in a big way and they should have a pair of players on the outside in junior Braxton Vanscoy and senior Jackson Zulauf that are plenty capable of keeping the Generals’ offense on track. The big question is, after years of digging for gold, how will Winfield respond now that its finally found it?
6 Despite graduation losses, can the Charleston Catholic girls team take one last step? Three straight losses in the state finals have the Irish hungry for a breakthrough. Though the Irish lost several key pieces, in particular forward Mills Mullen and defenders Anna Hewitt and Jenna Jordan, Catholic will bring back plenty of experienced underclassmen to go with what’s anticipated to be a solid incoming freshman class. Rising junior Lindsey Carr and sophomore Bella Cinco were tops on the team in scoring a year ago. Jill Uy also got valuable playing time as a rookie a year ago while rising junior Audrey Miller could be the next dominant defender/midfielder in the area. Seniors Katie Nester (keeper) and Jenna Panaro should provide leadership as well.
7 Can Maggie Britt’s individual exploits bring team success to South Charleston? Entering her junior year, Britt has piled up some of the most impressive scoring numbers anywhere in the state. Her 46 goals a year ago is believed to represent one of the 10 best individual seasons in state history. But so far the Black Eagles haven’t been able to match Britt’s scoring with success in the win column. In a Class AAA Region 3 Section 1 that has been dominated by GW, the Black Eagles will have to gain traction to help garner Britt the attention her numbers say she deserves. SC will return plenty of help this year, in particular fellow junior forward Genevieve Potter and senior goalkeeper Savannah Parsons.
8 Can the Herbert Hoover boys break through? While South Charleston’s girls team is trying to gain ground on George Washington, the Huskies boys squad will try to run down Charleston Catholic. The Huskies have made gains as a program over the last couple of years and will field an experienced team this year after losing just two seniors. Michael Watkins (22 goals) finished fourth in the Valley scoring race in his junior season a year ago and with experience across the field and Catholic trying to rebuild itself defensively, the time may never be better than now for Hoover.
9 Can Sissonville’s sophomore duo continue what it started a year ago? Fisher’s season overshadowed some solid freshman years on the girls side, including Cinco. The Indians sported a pair of explosive youngsters in Anna Gregor and Amelia Compston, who combined for 62 goals and 32 assists in leading the Indians to a Region 4 Section 1 finals appearance. Sissonville loses a few key pieces — primarily Alleigh Jordan, Lindsey Ullman and Autumn Givens — but keeper Sydney Farmer and the athletic Zoey McCutcheon are back. The Indians have a tall task in trying to run down regional foe Winfield this year as the Generals bring back nine starters, but how much ground can Sissonville make up?
10 What will the Kanawha Valley as a whole do for an encore? A year ago, the Valley proved to be as good if not better than any location in the state on the pitch. In securing half of the state tournament field, Kanawha County and Putnam County set the bar extremely high, and trying to reproduce that will be difficult to say the least. Winfield, Hurricane and Catholic girls as well as the GW boys would seem to be in the best position in terms of returners, but those four schools have established, deep-rooted programs that more often than not reload instead of rebuild. While a repeat of last year isn’t likely, it is possible, especially with those schools perched at the top and a few others in the area working to unseat them.