Nordonia boys soccer coach Jason Stepp knows all too well how tough life in the Suburban League National Conference is.

Last year, the Knights were solid outside the conference, but struggled in the league, finishing at 1-6. Nordonia went 6-8-3 overall and lost 2-1 to Kenston in its opening Division I playoff game last season.

"I think it was team chemistry that hurt us," Stepp said. "Senior leadership is something we've got better at this year. I feel that we did pretty well outside of conference."

As he enters his fifth year as head coach, however, Stepp believes the Knights are ready to step forward.

"We’re returning six starters from last year's team," Stepp said. "Most returning guys have been here for a few years. We’ve got three guys looking to play college soccer. That would be a first since I’ve been here. Also, I have a sophomore class pushing all the way."

Stepp will switch the Knights into a bit of a radical formation this fall, as Nordonia will play a 3-4-3 with a diamond midfield.

"It seems like our midfield core is just as willing to work hard," Stepp said. "We look to keep the ball. The key points will be transitioning into the defense and transitioning into offense.

"They've bought in from the start of the offseason," he added. "We talked about running a three-back formation. We've got three brand news starter up top, two in the back and one in the middle."

Stepp expects another dogfight in the National Conference this fall.

"The likes of Hudson and North Royalton look to be as good as they’ve been in years," Stepp said. "Cuyahoga Falls and us have been at the bottom, but that could change this year."

Nordonia will have Derek Mercer and Kai Toth as varsity assistant coaches, while Austin Usher and Scott Durham will serve as junior varsity coaches. Nick Miletti is the Knights’ goalkeeping coach.

Nordonia did lose seven players to graduation, including three-year captain Mark Kazamarek and multi-sport star Mitch Collica.

The Knights will have experience at goaltender this fall as senior captain  Zach Westbrooks is back between the pipes.

"Zach probably our most improved player from the last year," Stepp said.

A corps that includes sophomores Jack Shuble and Will Busse, along with freshman Jack Spangler is competing for the backup goaltender spot.

Stepp said Nordonia’s could play as spread or compact, depending on the opposition.

Anchoring the defense in the middle will be senior captain Josh Schneck, who’s been playing in the backline for three years for the Knights.

Stepp called sophomore defender Sean Joyce "our most inspired incoming player" coming into the preseason. He will be joined by junior Jayce Louthan starting on the left, as Louthan brings a physical presence.

Senior Thomas Colombo will provide depth at all three defensive slots, as well as at defensive midfield.

Anchoring the Knights at defenive midfield will be the team’s fastest player: Senior captain Brendan Jackson.

"He's again going to play multiple position," Stepp said. "With his pace, there's not to many kids that can play him straight up. Being one of the fastest guys on the team, he’s able to give a lot of help to out defense.

Sophomore right midfield Blake Karkoska is playing his first year of high school soccer, but he has plenty of experience with the game, coming from the Cleveland Internationals academy.

At left midfield will be junior Steven Kocab.

"He’s one of the most skillful players on our team," Stepp said. "Size has been his problem over the years, but he’s growing so that he can take it and dish it out this year."

Senior captain Dylan Flynn is a utility player who can play anywhere on the outside in midfield or at forward. Stepp said junior Moaud Azeroul has been growing into the outside roles as well.

Anchoring the Knights’ offense will be senior captain Izac Coleman, who returns to start at attacking midfield.

"We’re hoping to get him free as much as possible to be the magician we need him to be," Stepp said, noting Coleman is Nordonia’s top returning scorer.

 At the forward spots, Stepp said he plans to start Azeroual on the right wing and Flynn on the left wing.

At center forward, senior first-year player Owen Licht gets the nod after playing football and basketball for the Knights in previous year.

"He brings an attacking brain," Stepp said. "He's ready to the go to the [goal] every time he gets the ball."

Sophomore Tyler Edgehouse will see time at all three positions up top, while Kocab also could play up top. Junior Andrew Lastovka also could see time.

Nordonia was originally scheduled to welcome Bedford for its home opener, but the Knights will now host Willoughby South Friday at 7 p.m. Nordonia will welcome welcome Woodridge to Boliantz Stadium Thursday at 7 p.m.

Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, mleonard@recordpub.com or @MLeonard_GHO