Across the area, many high school boys soccer coaches are faced with the same question as the beginning of the 2018 fall season nears:

Who’s going to put the ball in the net?

A mass exodus of prolific goal-scorers has hit several area teams. Janesville Craig must replace the production of all-state forward Zach Currie, while Lake Geneva Badger and Delavan-Darien each lost all-state players in Payton Aranda and Jason Cano, respectively. Evansville graduated playmaking midfielder Kevin Garcia, while Elkhorn lost brothers Bryant and Kevin Romero, two first-team all-conference selections.

Those six players combined to score 166 goals in 2017, led by Cano’s 50-goal campaign. They accounted for 36.6 percent of the 453 goals their teams scored.

Their departures create headaches for coaches but open up opportunities for unheralded players to shine. Some teams have better answers than others.

The regular season begins Tuesday. Here’s a closer look at the area soccer scene:

Janesville Craig switching styles

Currie, an imposing presence at 6-foot-3, served as a prototypical center forward for Janesville Craig last season. He could hold the ball up and distribute to teammates or muscle through defenders to create his own scoring chances.

He’s not an easy player to replicate. So the Cougars must adapt.

“Zach was a great target guy,” Craig coach Garrett McCabe said. “He was great on the ball but he was a huge presence.

“We’re going to replace him with one of the fastest guys in the Big Eight.”

That would be Andrew Torres, a senior who scored five goals last fall. And with Gabe Rubine and Rodrigo Villanueva using their speed on the flanks, the Cougars should be able to counter quickly after winning possession.

Midfielder Ivan Pacheco (second team) is Craig’s only returning all-conference player. The senior set a career high with 11 goals in 2017 and will be the pivot in the midfield, a crucial role considering the Cougars want to focus more on team passing and quick exchanges in their 4-3-3 formation.

“It’s been tough to make a final selection,” McCabe said. “We’ve got a big pool of talent. It’s a different type of team than we’ve had last year and the year before.

“The overall vision on the field is more advanced than I’ve had so far with a group. We talk a lot about anticipating the next play.”

The Cougars’ biggest question mark is on defense, where junior AJ Anhold and sophomore Luke Brown figure to take over as leaders.

The Cougars feasted on nonconference opponents in 2017 to finish with an 11-8-3 record, their first winning season under McCabe, who’s entering his fifth season in charge.

In Big Eight play, things were a big trickier. Craig finished 2-6-1, with its only wins coming against Madison La Follette and Janesville Parker.

McCabe sees his team as one that could make a move up the league table in 2018.

“We lost some really, really good players last year but we still have so many talented players who are back,” McCabe said. “I think we’re going to stake our claim.”

The Cougars host Waterford on Tuesday (5 p.m.) in their season opener. 

Parker looks for turnaround under Augustine

Jason Augustine is Janesville Parker’s third coach in four years after he accepted the position this summer.

He inherits a program that has averaged under two wins per year since 2009. Parker’s last Big Eight Conference win came in 2012.

But he no longer has to worry about participation numbers as some of his predecessors did. The Vikings have had about 40 players come out each of the past two seasons, Augustine said. As recently as 2015, Parker didn’t have the numbers to field a junior varsity team.

“The thing I’m most impressed with is the integrity and the will these kids have,” Augustine said. “We might be young, but we’ve got a lot of depth.”

Like Craig, Parker will also be switching tactically this fall. Augustine said the Vikings will adopt a 4-2-3-1 system, which the team experimented with late last year under coach Laken Jacobson.

“It’s a formation built on a lot of support, meaning if one person has the ball there’s always two or three others to support,” Augustine said. “The formation forms a lot of triangles and a lot of diamonds. I’m kind of picking up where they left off last season.”

Sophomore striker David Zavala, junior midfielder Javier Izaguirre and senior midfielder Christian Gamino will be a players to watch this season.

The Vikings open their campaign Tuesday when they host Burlington (6:30 p.m.). 

Elkhorn, Delavan-Darien set up for another SLC clash

Delavan-Darien, which set a state record by scoring 159 goals last season, returns perhaps the area’s best pure finisher in senior forward Zeus Huerta, who led the state with 51 goals last fall. The Huerta-Cano strike partnership is no more, but the Comets have built one of the state’s best talent pipelines under coach Mike Marse. Goal-scoring shouldn’t be an issue as the Comets look for a third straight state appearance.

Senior Pablo Guzman Martinez (16 goals, 22 assists in 2017) pulls the strings in midfield. He’s a prime candidate to experience a scoring boost. Junior Dieonte Orth (8 goals) should be at full strength after missing 21 games with an injury last season.

Delavan-Darien and its chief Southern Lakes Conference rival, Elkhorn, are expected to meet again in the league title game. The two schools have combined to win the last seven conference championships.

The Elks found a way to slow the Comets down last season, holding them to two goals in two meetings, including a memorable 2-0 result over the Comets in the conference championship game.

“I don’t know if I have any secret recipe, it’s just two good programs that have established themselves,” Elkhorn coach BZ Kayser said. “It’s just a great rivalry on both ends.”

The Romero brothers accounted for 30 goals last season. Luke Umnus (12 goals) is the team's top returning scorer. 

Kayser said junior Luis Roman could break out as a scorer, while Vince Umnus, Luke Schoenenberg, Sean Ahler and Alec Birbaum all bring back experience.

“Our program has been successful the past few years, so we think we have some kids who can put the ball in the back of the net,” Kayser said.

The Elks will christen their school’s new artificial turf field Tuesday when they host Whitefish Bay, the reigning Division 2 state champion.

Evansville will build around Stencel

Even after losing Garcia and Townsend, Evansville’s cupboard is far from bare.

Forward Jackson Stencel, who scored 21 goals in 2017, should be even better as a sophomore.

“Jackson is just scratching the surface of the player he can be,” Evansville coach Kendall Buttchen said. “He’s taken more of a vocal leadership role and is such a dynamic player. He gives us a lot of leeway up top.”

First-team all-Rock Valley Conference defender Owen Wagner returns, while Ben Ross and Peyton Scarpaci are in line for larger roles.

“You’re not going to replace players like Kevin or Peyton with two guys,” Buttchen said. “It’s going to have to be a team approach.”

McFarland, which Evansville upset 1-0 in a sectional semifinal last November, has won the last three Rock Valley titles and returns the conference player of the year, midfielder Caleb Blair.

Buttchen said he expects his side, McFarland, Big Foot/Williams Bay and East Troy to contend for the Rock Valley championship.

Milton brings back two all-conference players

Milton, which slumped to a 5-11-2 record in 2017 after losing the program’s all-time leading goal-scorer, Scott Biancofiori (75 goals), brings back two all-conference players: senior midfielder Andrew Vaage and senior defender Alfonso Lopez.

The Red Hawks finished fifth in the Badger South Conference, where Monona Grove will look to hold onto its title after it ended Oregon’s longtime reign.

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