MANTENO — With some sports starting summer action, it was time for boys soccer to join the fun on Thursday in Manteno.
The Panthers hosted fellow I-8 member Coal City along with St. Anne for some preseason work to give the teams a chance to finally get on the field and see what each team is working with for the upcoming season.
“This is the first time we’ve played a game this summer,” Manteno coach Justin Emerson said. “We’ve gone to summer invites over the past couple of years, which is nice, although it requires travel. We figured why not try and throw something together here with some local teams for one night to hang out, play a couple games, and I think it worked out really well.”
After last season’s Class 1A sectional title and Super-Sectional appearance, expectations have been set for the Panthers.
And with seven returning starters and more guys with varsity experience coming off the bench, there’s good reason for it.
But at the same point, replacing the four starters in Jack Trepanier, Matthew Schaeffer, Luke Deters and Steven Basa, is a tough task.
“That’s kind of the beauty of these summer games, you get to see who could step up fill those shoes,” Emerson said. “We lost players who were very aggressive, tenacious and didn’t mind putting their body on line. With losing Schaeffer, we’ll need to find where the creativity is coming from. Who can step up with a big play when we’re playing like crap.”
Thursday was a start of the retooling process as Manteno notched wins against both teams in friendly competition.
“Everyone plays. Freshmen, sophomores, doesn’t matter. Everyone sees the field and that’s what summer ball is all about,” Emerson said. “It’s a chance to see how the younger guys adapt to the speed and physicality of varsity soccer. They all did a great job and it’s great to give them more chances to show what they’ve got.”
It had been a number of years since Coal City experienced a winning season in boys soccer.
Then, last year came and turned everything around.
Now, the Coalers are in a similar spot as Manteno, returning eight starters and positioning themselves to make a run at an I-8 title.
“We showed some good fight and physicality that is very much needed at the top level,” Coal City coach Steven McCleary said. “Most of our upperclassmen weren’t here, so getting to play the underclassmen and seeing how they handle the more experienced players is a good thing for us.”
However, ball control, more than ever, McCleary says, will be the main focus. The team will break in a new goalie after the graduation of four-year keeper Hunter Bannon, who pitched nine shutouts last season.
“We improved quite a bit last year, but I think this year we can take a couple more steps foward if we control the ball better,” McCleary said.
Learning on the fly
A lot of new players will be donning Cardinal uniforms, which has St. Anne sitting in a state of mystery.
“Having new players is fantastic, but replacing the experience is tough,” St. Anne coach Andy Stembridge said. “We’re trying to get them caught up to speed and some of them are new to the game of soccer which is a challenge. But it’s one we’ll deal with and work through.”
One problem Stembridge has to solve instantly is who will replace the 29 assists and 11 goals left from Eric Godines, who exhausted his eligibility as a Cardinal.
On the flip side, Raul Guerrero returns for his sophomore year after connecting with the back of the net 36 times.
But that’s what summer ball is for; finding out who will be the next breakthrough star on each team.
“Finally getting to play on a full field definitely helps,” Stembridge said. “I saw some good things from our players. We started making some connecting passes which is great, but we’re taking it slow. We have to be fit and conditioned well first before taking the next step.”