While there won’t be a coaches poll released for several weeks, it’s not far-fetched to think the Janesville Craig girls soccer team would rack up plenty of votes if a survey was conducted today.
When a team brings back nearly its entire starting 11 after finishing one excruciating overtime loss away from the state tournament, some recognition is warranted.
The Cougars, though, aren’t buying into their own hype—not yet, anyway.
“Well, there are always whispers, but everything was before the season,” Craig coach Bill McCabe said Sunday following the team’s first week of practices. “Ever since we came into practice the first day, it all went away.
“It was business as usual. Everyone came in focused. There hasn’t been one word all week long about our expectations or about who we play.”
Led by a deep and talented junior class, Craig is poised to surpass the achievements from its 2018 campaign. The 2019 season begins tonight with a home game against crosstown rival Janesville Parker.
Last spring, the Cougars tied Verona for third place in the Big Eight Conference—finishing six points behind first-place Middleton and one point behind second-place Sun Prairie.
Then came a brilliant playoff run that included shutout wins over Madison East, Verona and Middleton.
An overtime goal in a sectional final against Kettle Moraine last June prevented Craig from advancing to state for the first time since 1999.
Nine months after that emotional defeat, the Cougars have gone back to work.
“That’s always the main goal: to get farther than you did the year before,” senior captain Greta Hanthorn said following practice Monday. “It was natural sliding back into how we normally are. I think the first week (of practice) went really well for us.”
Hanthorn is part of a formidable group of attacking players that includes juniors Hallie King, Savanna Dare, Sarah Gregg, Abby Membrino and Hannah Loertscher.
King was a first-team all-conference forward and garnered all-state accolades after leading the Cougars with 22 goals. She scored 27 goals for Janesville Parker as a freshman.
Craig might experiment with a 4-2-3-1 formation this season, McCabe said, a move that could help the team lessen the fatigue that set in late last season.
“We know that by the time we got to the Kettle Moraine game, we didn’t have any legs underneath us anymore,” McCabe said. “I’ve done everything … to guard against overtaxing the girls’ legs and bodies, and one of the ways of doing that is playing a 4-2-3-1.”
King would be the lone target atop the formation, with three attacking midfielders providing support.
Junior Brooke Parkhurst, a first-team all-conference player in 2018, and sophomore Claudia Fieiras will occupy defensive midfielder positions—the double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 formation—ahead of a four-player back line, McCabe said.
Hannah Dunlavy, a two-time first-team all-conference center back, leads a Craig defense that gave up 11 goals in 20 games and totaled 13 clean sheets last season.
Junior Maia Rowekamp is Craig’s No. 1 keeper, with freshman Abby Trapp serving as a reserve. Abbey Schrader, who split time in goal with Rowekamp last spring, will miss the 2019 season with an ACL injury, McCabe said.
Between their Big Eight schedule and a difficult nonconference slate, the Cougars will be tested plenty. A nonconference tournament this weekend includes matches against D.C. Everest and Neenah, while road dates with Oconomowoc and Waunakee are set for early May.
“Our schedule is just a killer,” McCabe said. “Every game is difficult. We tell all the girls, ‘If you want to take the team to the next level, you cannot remain status quo.’”
At least one player is eager to see how it all shakes out.
“I’ve never been more excited,” Hanthorn said.
Parker building with higher participation
A shortage of players left Janesville Parker on the wrong end of many lopsided losses last season.
There weren’t enough bodies to field a JV squad, so the Vikings had to deploy many inexperienced players in varsity matches—a recipe for disaster against the heavyweight programs in the harsh Big Eight Conference.
The result was a winless season, including seven defeats by at least 10 goals.
Participation shouldn’t be an issue as the Vikings prepare for their second campaign under coach Jenna Rosienski, who counted 36 players on her initial roster Friday.
“It’s exciting to see your program grow,” Rosienski said. “Looking at our numbers this year, there’s a lot of hope with being able to compete with these teams. You’re able to compete more in these games. That was one of our struggles last year.”
Two Parker players, junior Josie Quade and sophomore keeper Isabella Toberman, earned honorable mention all-conference awards last season.
Versatile athletes Sydney Pajerski, Kylee Skrzypchak and Emma Dyer headline a big freshmen class that shows promise, Rosienski said.
“This year, it’s been very good to know we’re returning players and they’re being drawn to the program as we’re building it,” Rosienski said.
A road-heavy schedule will be working against the Vikings this season. Parker plays its first three games in Janesville—the Vikings open at Craig—before contesting seven straight away games.
Twelve of Parker’s 19 scheduled games are on the road.
Milton hit hard by graduation
Perhaps no team locally was hit harder by graduation than Milton.
The Red Hawks graduated 13 seniors after winning 13 games, finishing third in the Badger South Conference and winning a regional title for the fourth straight season.
Beyond senior captains Chloe Buescher and Carley Hanke, Milton’s lineup is full of question marks.
“We lost over half our team from last year,” said Kayla Hottinger, who’s entering her sixth year as Milton’s head coach. “That was a pretty big hit. That (senior) class was significant in what they achieved.”
The Red Hawks averaged 3.6 goals per game last season and led the Badger South in scoring, paced by forward Maggy Henschler (21 goals), who’s now playing at UW-Milwaukee.
Defensive stalwart Carley Albrecht and keeper Dani Heitsman both graduated, as well.
Buescher (9 goals), a first-team pick at forward, is Milton’s lone returning all-conference player.
Madison Edgewood will be tough to unseat as league champion. Sophomore Hailey Rothwell (18 goals, 11 assists) is one of three first-team all-conference players back for the Crusaders.
McFarland the favorite in Rock Valley
The landscape in the Rock Valley looks much the same as it did last year: Evansville and Big Foot/Williams Bay chasing McFarland.
Those three teams totaled 10 of the league’s 14 first-team picks.
The Spartans return five first-team all-conference players from a squad that cruised to a league double in 2018—winning both the regular-season and conference-tournament titles.
Evansville and Big Foot/Williams Bay tied for second, combining to go 0-3 against the Spartans.
The Blue Devils won 10 of their final 13 games in 2018, turning around a season that started 1-6.
Senior Irelyn Baumberger, a first-team all-conference pick, junior forward Abby Eftemoff (9 goals), sophomore midfielder Olivia Hunt and junior defender Zoe Winter form the core of Evansville’s starting 11.
Big Foot/Williams Bay brings back its top four scorers, including senior forwards Abby Peterson (23 goals, 11 assists) and Abby VandeBogart (14 goals, 7 assists). The ChiefDogs averaged almost six goals per game in league play—second to only McFarland—and should be among the area’s best offensive teams again.
Union Grove looks to defend Southern Lakes title
Union Grove ended Burlington’s five-year reign in the Southern Lakes, and the Broncos are well-positioned to extend their stay at the top.
All three of Union Grove’s first-team all-conference players are back, including senior forward Alexa Panyk (20 goals, 12 assists) and junior forward Megan Barber (12 goals).
Kendra Hoffman, a 15-goal scorer, is back too. The Broncos, remarkably, lost just one of the 71 goals they scored last season.
“They’ve got everybody back,” Elkhorn coach BZ Kayser said of Union Grove. “Then I think it’s everybody fighting for second through fifth. It’s going to be a logjam.”
Elkhorn and Burlington should be among the teams jostling behind Union Grove. The Elks lost defensive anchor Cameron Jacobson but return a pair of second-team all-conference picks, senior forward Alex Moreno (7 goals) and senior defender Kim Nelson.
Elsewhere, Elkhorn is untested.
“We’ve got some work to do. We’re very young,” Kayser said Thursday following scrimmages against Kenosha Bradford and New Berlin Eisenhower.
Kayser added that he’s eager to see sophomore midfielders Tatum May, Skylar Harlon and Madison Franks in game action.
Second-team all-conference picks Brittany Gestrich (12 goals), Lucy Reed and Nichole Ritzman are back to lead Lake Geneva Badger, which tied Delavan-Darien and Westosha Central for fifth place last season.