Greg Shoults has been around soccer in general — and Cuyahoga Falls soccer in particular — for more than four decades.
Thus, the veteran coach was under no illusions about the magnitude of the task he faced when he took over the Black Tigers girls soccer program last fall.
Falls went 3-12-2 overall and 0-7 in the Suburban League National Conference last season, but Shoults noted the Black Tigers did make strides.
"In the year before i came, the team gave up 85 goals," Shoults said. "For most of the year, we were on track to cut that in half. We had a difficult finish last year, where we lost two starting defenders to injury. We still were in most of the games that we played."
This year, Shoults will have a both a veteran squad with 12 seniors and an influx of talent with 11 freshman, several of whom he said could start on varsity. Falls has 37 girls in the program this fall, meaning the Black Tigers will be abel to play a full junior varsity schedule.
"There’s been a definite improvement in understanding how we want to play," Shoults said. "We’ve got a good group of freshman that are coming in. They’ve got a lot of talent."
As Shoults notes, however, life in the National Confernece is never easy, given the amount of quality programs in the conference.
"With our games outside the league, I’ve told them that if she they well, they should be able to win," Shoults said. "In the league, its going to be very difficult. We want to make sure we are not be an easy game anymore. A lot of coaches told me last year after losses ‘They gave it 100 percent for the whole game.’ That’s all I can ask."
Shoults said he hasn’t committed Falls to any one formation, thought he hopes for his team to stay compact in either a 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-2 situation.
Kevin Alleyne is back at Falls’ head junior varsity coach. The Black Tigers lost only varsity players Maddie Walters and Paige Phillips to graduation.
Falls have some new faces at goaltender this season. Sophomore Ava Bowser will get the starting nod, as she was Falls’ JV keeper last season. Senior Sydney Knepper will serve as backup goalie, but Knepper will see most of her time in the field.
Anchoring Falls’ defense will be senior Kate Long, who was returning starter at center back, although she was injured at the end of last season.
"She holds the middle down very well," Shoults said.
Freshman Hailey Blair will also get a starting spot at center back, while senior Autumn Keller could see time at both center and outside back.
After spending most of last year at forward, senior Ashley Miller will get a starting nod at outside back this season. Shoultz notes senior twin sisters Ameah and Laela McVan also will see time outside, along with sophomore Grace Frantz.
At holding midfield, Falls’ top player will serve as the lynchpin as senior captain is Kaylie Ward is back after earning all-district honors last season.
"She’s got a good defensive mindset," Shoultz said. "She sees the field very well. She has a lot more support around her this year."
Senior captain center Kaitlin Wilson will be a three-year starter for Falls as she moves into a central midfield role. She will serve as Falls’ primary set piece taker.
Senior Jenai Blake also will bring both speed and skill to center midfield as well, though Shoults notes Blake likely will play at forward when Falls plays a 4-4-2 formation.
Senior captain Elizabeth Kurpik leads a corps of players at outside midfield that also includes senior Chloe Schneiders. Freshman Sonia Hammaonds could see time at any midfield spot, while freshman Ellie Brustowski brings athleticism and a wicked shot from the outside.
Senior Jill Johnson and sophomore Lauren Martin will provide depth at outside midfield.
In the forward spot, junior Emma Brusktowski brings a physical presence up the middle. She is Falls’ top returning scorer after putting up 12 goals last season.
"She’s got great athleticism," Shoults said. "She keeps getting better."
When she plays at forward, Blake will bring a more technical side to the position, while Knepper will have a role at the target player off the bench for Falls.
Falls is set to open the season Saturday at 3 p.m. at Kent Roosevelt. The home opener will be Wednesday at 7 p.m. vs. Uniontown Lake before Falls travels to Tallmadge Saturday at 7 p.m.
Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, email@example.com or @MLeonard_GHO