Heading into the 2019 season, one might think expectations in the Nordonia girls soccer program would be running at an all-time high.
There are reasons for optimism. This fall, Nordonia will return 10 starters to the pitch from a team that went 10-4-3 in 2018, as well at 3-3-1 in the Suburban League National Conference.
That stretch included a 1-0 win over Hudson, which was believed to be the program’s first victory over the Explorers. The Knights lost 4-1 to Solon in the sectional finals.
Given this, Is head coach Les Gicei dreaming of league titles?
"I'm guarded," Gicei said, with a smile. "I think expectations become disappointments if you put too much stock in them. We have a lot of questions to answer, especially with our bench."
Guarded as he is, Gicei acknowledges Nordonia girls soccer is a transformed program, as he enters his fifth season as head coach.
"I believe our program has improved from the youth up to varsity," Gicei said. "The previous coach and I put a lot of work in along with the girls. It's paying off. I've been a lot more involved in the youth program."
Gicei notes there will be 35 girls in the program this fall and that the collective soccer IQ of the Knights is the highest he’s seen.
"You need numbers. Competition is always good," he said. "I think it’s a very together team. A bonded team. That's the key to any squad. A lot of credit for that goes to our captains.
"I think we're going to be decent offensively. We definitely want to go forward. The skill level has gotten a lot better The girls have done a lot of work."
Because of that skill level, Gicei said his team will not commit to any set formation or style, noting the Knights have enough "tactical awareness" to play in multiple systems, given their opposition.
"When I started here, we had to play one formation and that was it," Gicei said. "We’re able to do so much more now."
One reason for Gicei’s guarded stance: The National Conference remains one of the top girls soccer leagues in the state. Gicei said he didn’t expect state semifinalist Twinsburg to drop off too much, while Hudson, Wadsworth and North Royalton also could compete for the conference title.
"The conference is pretty solid top to bottom," Gicei said.
Nordonia’s coaching staff remains intact as Faith Truthan returns as varsity assistant and Mike Codispoti is back as junior varsity coach. The Knights lost only three players to graduation, though one was four-year starter Sophie Lim. Forward Tylar Thomas and midfielder Melanie Laviano also graduated.
Like last fall, Nordonia enters the season without a dedicated starter at goaltender. Seniors Caitlyn Stafford and Sheyli Wetzel each saw plenty of time in net last year, but Gicei notes sophomore Elizabeth Shubert also is pushing for time.
"We'd like to see somebody win the job," Gicei said.
Things are much more settled in front of net, as Nordonia’s defense will be led by junior captain and center back Grace Koperna.
"She’s been there for a couple years," Gicei said. "We could see her move up to defensive midfield, but she’s a great player."
Sophomore Maddie Wasielewski started as a freshman last year and has grown even more at center back. Senior Sierra Boczkeiwicz and sophomore Gabby Demarco also will see time at center back.
At the fullback slots, senior Morgan Bugenske might get the start at the right, while senior captain Riley Saliga could start on the left. However, Gicei notes Saliga’s speed and versatility could have playing any position on the pitch.
Sophomore McKenna Kovach and Boczkeiwicz also will see time at outside back.
Anchoring the Knights’ midfield will be junior captain Sam Wiehe. Wiehe led the Knights with 13 goals last season and can play anywhere in the front half of the field.
"She's going to have a good year," Gicei said. "She's definitely and grown and improved. She puts in so much work."
Diminutive sophomore Megan Abate, Koperna, sophomore Campbell McFerren and senior Carly Hanson all will contribute in the midfield.
Sophomore McKenna Kovach could get the nod at right midfield, but Gicei said his wingers are interchangeable. Senior twin sisters Maddie and Katie Buckles will see time on the wings, along with Saliga and seniors Maddie Czuba and Alexa Riedel.
While Wiehe might be Nordonia’s top returning scorer, there were times last fall when sophomore forward Athena Kolettis was the Knights’ best player as a freshman. After putting up seven goals during her first season, Gicei looks for even more from the speedy sophomore this fall.
When Kovach moves up to forward, she will bring a more technical side to the position, while Katie Buckles and Saliga also will see time at forward.
Nordonia’s season opener is a doozy. The Knights will play host to Walsh Jesuit Saturday at 7 p.m. at Boliantz Stadium.
"They're always going to be a very good team," Gicei said. "It's going to be a heck of match for us. We're not going in with any expectations."
The Knights will play host to Streetsboro next Tuesday at home at home at 7 p.m. before visiting North Canton Hoover Aug. 24 at 3 p.m.
Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, firstname.lastname@example.org or @MLeonard_GHO