BY JAKE LOURIM
TROY — Losing four top underclassmen would deplete most soccer programs.
Not Troy. The Colts just go to the next man up.
“Fortunately, in Troy, someone steps up and does the job,” Troy coach Brian Zawislak said. “We’re not short of talent here. I think it’s the same case this year — I think we’re going to find guys to score goals.”
Troy took a hit this offseason. An accomplished class led by forwards Jason Leslie and A.J. Kalina and defender David Eicher headed off to college. But another loss was costly — the Colts lost four of their best remaining players to the U.S. Soccer Academy league, a high level of travel soccer that overlaps with the high-school season to prevent players from also playing for their high-school teams.
That takes sophomore Willie Maddox and junior Allen Wang out of the back line and goalies Matt Smolinski and Craig Duggan out of the net. Senior defender Luke Ridenour did not come out.
It will take some moving around, but the Colts believe they can replace the losses.
“I’m bummed that we lost some kids, but I still think we have talent,” Zawislak said. “We might not have as much depth, but I think we still have a core there to be a solid team in the state.”
Zawislak said the toughest thing to replace isn’t the talent.
“It’s just the experience that they all had,” he said. “[But] we’re bringing back a lot of kids in the midfield, like (Danny) Berger and (Aaron) Faison and (Zach) Doepke, who have all had tournament experience and been tested.”
With the losses of all four starting defenders and all three goalies, the rebuilding will start on defense.
Junior Ben Holland will start at goalie after playing junior varsity last year. The next step down from the Academy club, Zawislak said, is a national league team or a Midwest regional team, and that’s where Holland plays. It shouldn’t be a big drop-off.
The challenge will be getting him in sync with the back line. Last year, Smolinski was almost always coordinated with his defenders. Holland and his defense have to get to the same place.
“Ben has plenty of experience in the club in tough, big games, it’s just getting him to adjust to the high-school setting,” Zawislak said. “Getting him to adjust playing with a new back line.”
With all the new faces, the coach still found a bright side.
“It’s almost a good thing — everything’s new,” he said. “Sometimes it clashes when you have the same back line and new goalie or when you have a new back line and the same goalie.”
The Colts will try to move some players from other positions into the back line. Zawislak mentioned moving outside midfielder Danny Berger into an outside back spot.
Senior Brandon Riddle has shifted from outside back to center back, and senior Zach Doepke has moved from attacking center midfielder to defending center midfielder.
“It’s not that big of a difference,” Doepke said. “If I get to attack more, someone will drop off for me.”
Doepke has the ability to create opportunities for other players such as forwards Ian Fox, Tom Carlson and Nate Bladecki. They have the unenviable task of replacing top goal-scorers Leslie and Kalina.
Zawislak will again look for his team to score goals by committee, rather than relying on one star.
In all, the Colts return only five players — Doepke, Riddle, Fox, Aaron Faison and Jake Meissner — from last year’s team that won the league title and reached the state semifinals.
Bladecki and center back Josh Brodbine are the two sophomores in addition to freshman Mitch Guitar.
When the Colts open the season, they will feature at least seven new starters. Still, they’re optimistic.
“I think already everyone’s pretty confident,” Riddle said. “We know our strengths and weaknesses. We have a lot of new players, and it’ll take time to mature and get used to the varsity level.”
“It’s going to be challenging trying to fit the right pieces together in the back,” Zawislak said. “When it’s all said and done, I feel like as long as they’re soccer players, we can put them in any spot, and as long as we give them the right directions, they can make it happen.”
The schedule features the usual cast: Rochester, Rochester Adams, Rochester Stoney Creek and Troy Athens. The Colts added non-league games against Utica Eisenhower and Auburn Hills Avondale and will play a tournament at Warren De La Salle to add some beef to the non-league schedule.
The schedule will help them in one of the toughest districts in the state that includes Troy, Athens, all three Rochester schools and Eisenhower. Of the seven teams, four were in the last year’s final state rankings.
Still, there are lofty standards. Troy has only won one regional title in the last eight years but has repeatedly fielded solid teams.
As Doepke said, “We have to live up to the expectations.”