Andrew Spencer is as maroon and silver as they come.
The 2010 Woodridge graduate was a member of Woodridge boys soccer’s lone regional team in 2008. He has spent the last four years working on the staffs of previous Bulldog head coaches Nate Rausch and Todd Hartong
Thus, the fact Spencer takes over for Hartong as head Woodridge boys coach this fall seems like a natural progression.
"I feel like, with Todd leaving, it was a good move," Spencer said. "I wanted the challenge for myself. I have a strong connection with the players in general and the community. It was just a good fit."
A graduate assistant at Kent State University, Spencer knows he takes over a team with a legacy to uphold.
The Bulldogs went 9-8-1 in 2018, including 6-0-1 in the Portage Trail Conference Metro Division. The Bulldogs won the Metro Division for the fifth straight year. Woodridge was eliminated by a 2-0 loss to Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy in a Division II sectional final last fall.
However, Spencer will have to move forward with a team that lost 12 seniors to graduation, many of whom were multi-year starters.
"Most of the players we would be replacing them with would be players that played JV for us," Spencer said. "We have a couple of players who were varsity last year."
The Bulldogs do have eight letterwinners back and Spencer plans to have them playing attractive, attacking soccer. While the Bulldogs will stick to their 4-3-3 formation with an inverted midfield, Spencer made it clear he wants the team to go forward.
"We’re trying to make the game fun for the players and for the people who are watching," Spencer said. "We want to play the right way. The boys have worked extremely hard this summer to adjust to new coaches and a new style. I think we’re going to deal with giving up goals, but we’re going to score a lot of goals. I’d rather win 6-5 than 1-0.
"As far as replacing last year’s team, it’s hard to replace their team leadership, but I think we will be able to replace their production," he added. "Offense was not something that was a mystery to us this year. The mystery is in midfield."
Spencer believes, despite the graduation losses, the road to the Metro Division title still runs through Quick Road.
"Every single offseason since Caleb Whitaker graduated, we’ve had Metro Division teams saying ‘It’s our year,’" Spencer said. "We’re happy to play spoiler to that."
Moving into Spencer’s old position is another Woodridge graduate as 2017 Bulldog alum Alex Powell rejoins the program as an assistant coach.
One area Woodridge will have plenty of experience this fall is at goaltender. Senior Ben Rado will start between the pipes again for the Bulldogs, after finishing with six shutouts and a 1.52 goals against average last season.
"He’s looking great," Spencer said. "He’s made some improvement this offseason."
Junior Cole Whitaker also returns as backup goalie.
Spencer notes his team will be a bit thin at defense this year, but the group will be anchored by junior captain Karlo Armourliev. Junior varsity call-ups Kyle Carey and Jake Samerdak also will see time at central defense.
Junior Nic Tafini has been converted from midfielder to starting left back, while Spencer notes senior Mike Ritch would have started if not for a back injury last season. Ritch will start at right back.
"Those two have been fantastic in our preseason games," Spencer said.
The loss to graduation of multi-year starters Aiden Hartong and Nolan Spencer — the coach’s younger brother — decimated Woodridge’s midfield. Anchoring the young core will be junior holding midfielder Adam Reaman, who’s older brother Sam also played for Woodridge.
"He has the same mentality as his older brother. He’s his own player, though," Spencer said. "He’s one of our better passers as well. He’s everything you want out of that position."
After taking his junior year off, senior Jad El Ghazal returns as central midfielder and captain for the Bulldogs.
At attacking midfield, freshman Nolan Kuhlke and sophomore Danny Batyrbaev are competing to start, though Kuhlke has been hobbled by a sprained ankle. Junior Darren Vanyo will provide depth at all three midfield spots.
After playing all over the field for the Bulldogs the last two seasons, senior captain Manning Thiel has found a home at left winger. Described as an "offensive weapon" by Spencer, the speedy Thiel scored five goals last year while mainly playing outside back.
Woodridge has another returning starter at right wing, as junior Nathan Dunaj moves down from the forward spot. Dunaj scored eight goals and six assista last year.
Woodridge’s starting forward will be its top returning scorer, as senior Josh Fleming brings a tenacious mentality. Fleming scored 12 goals and seven assists last season.
"Bulldog is a perfect adjective for Josh," Spencer said. "He hunts the ball. Once he gets it, he puts it in the net. He’s very coachable. He’s such a great young man."
Senior Evan Wagner also will see time up top after playing JV last season.
Woodridge was set to open the season at home Friday, but due to poor conditions at Lahoski Field, the game has been moved to Archbishop Hoban Friday at 7 p.m.
The Bulldogs will travel to Nordonia Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. before hosting Stow-Munroe Falls Aug. 24 at 7 p.m.
Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, firstname.lastname@example.org or @MLeonard_GHO