PELLA — Despite just four starters returning, a wealth of experienced players yields optimism for the Central College women’s soccer team in 2019.
It may seem like a rebuilding year for the Dutch coming off a 10-7-1 (4-4-0 American Rivers Conference) season. They lost seven starters.
Looking deeper, six non-starters played in at least 15 games last year and 10 players logged at least 450 minutes on the field. Injuries all over the lineup forced coach Mike Kobylinski to use a rotation of up to 24 players regularly.
“We have a lot of players who got those valuable minutes last year,” Kobylinski said. “They’re now a year stronger and will be able to apply what they learned to this season.”
Central has 20 returning letterwinners, including seven seniors.
“I think we’re going to be balanced,” Kobylinski said. “We have a group of players focused on what they can do in their positions and how to best help the team.”
A loaded non-conference slate includes three trips to Wisconsin, two to Illinois and five home dates. In the conference, Loras College remains the favorite with Wartburg College projected as the runner-up in a preseason coaches poll. That same poll listed Central at No. 6 in the nine-team league.
“In this league, everybody is capable of winning against each other on any given day,” Kobylinski said. “We want to try to trust the process a little bit more and not get focused on preseason rankings. We want to focus on the next game and peak at the end of the year.”
The program has been a consistent force in the league, qualifying for the conference tournament the last eight years, including an appearance in the 2014 finals.
One of the most potent weapons in program history, striker Erin Manion, a senior, who has scored at least 10 goals each year at Central, notching a career-high 37 points in 2018 with 12 goals and seven assists. The three-time all-conference and all-region selection is already fourth on Central’s career goals list.
“Erin’s averaged roughly 30 points every year,” Kobylinski said. “She has been one of the best attacking threats not only in the league, but in the nation the last three years.”
Sophomore Anna Tillo and junior Katie Wang are in pursuit of playing time alongside Manion as a second forward. Tillo had one goal in 2018 while Wang had an assist, both primarily playing in reserve roles.
“Anna had a good spring, despite working through a little bit of an injury,” Kobylinski said.” I think she’s a natural goal scorer, so when you get her around the goal she’s going to do good things.
“Katie came on really strong towards the end of the year and I think she’s going to do some great things for us. We hope both Anna and Katie are going to help our strike force score a lot of goals this year.”
A pair of junior college transfers add some fresh faces to this part of the field for Central. Jessi Altman and Molly Kellar (junior, Knoxville) came from North Iowa Area Community College and Indian Hills Community College, respectively.
“We hope both of them can give us a little spark up top as well,” Kobylinski said.
Junior Sophia Sanchez and a few freshmen could also see time here.
Much of the Central attack will run through senior midfielder Elise Askelsen, a Google Cloud/CoSIDA Academic All-America pick, who dished out five assists in 2018 while scoring one goal of her own.
“We think Elise is a natural distributor of the ball,” Kobylinski said. “She can penetrate the defense and we’re looking for her, whether it’s on the dribble or off the dribble, to open other teams up and provide some assists.”
Junior Sarah Casterline is in line to provide solid minutes as the team’s holding midfielder in support of Askelsen.
“Whereas Elise might attack a little bit more, Sarah can be a little more offset or underneath Elise to cover space,” Kobylinski said. “She worked extremely hard this spring. I know she’s eager to give us whatever shifts we call for.”
On the flanks, seniors Mikaela Erickson and Baylee Kivett have played major reserve roles for three years but are now prepping for consistent starting roles. Erickson has nine career goals while Kivett has three.
“The next step for Mikaela is getting her to realize that she has more offensive output in her,” Kobylinski said. “She’s come a long way and had probably one of the best springs of any one on the team.
“Baylee brings a lot of leadership and she always gives 100 percent. She’s improved tremendously in her four years and we’re excited for her senior year.”
A talented duo of freshmen and Wang are also options as attacking and outside midfielders.
Gabrielle Lillie is leading the way as a defensive midfielder.
Juniors Gabi Toulon, Tayte Barense and sophomore Ceora LeClaire are slotted behind Lillie but are also options as holding midfielders behind Casterline.
The anchor of the defensive line for Central is center back and will be also seen at outside back Cate Christopherson. She’s been bit by the injury bug at times but is effective when healthy. She can also push to an outside back.
“As long as we can keep her on the field, I think she’s one of our most consistent players and smartest players,” Kobylinski said. “The game comes naturally to her.”
At right back, Sydney Canney started the final four games of last season and is the presumed starter there for this season.
“Sydney came on at the end of last year as not only of our best defenders, but probably one of our best players,” Kobylinski said.
Stephanie Noble brings a veteran presence at left back.
“She’s bid her time at left back,” Kobylinski said. “Hopefully she can give us good minutes on the outside.”
Senior Hannah Ogren and sophomore Ashley Donohue add depth here while Toulon and Barense may also drop to the back row in spurts.
The primary starter the past three seasons, junior Taylor Golt leads a pack of five goalkeepers into the season. Starting all 18 matches a year ago, Golt went 10-7-1 with a 1.42 goals against average.
In addition to the two transfers, seven freshmen are joining the program, including three from Colorado, Michigan and Minnesota.
The coaching staff for Kobylinski’s ninth season will once again include goalkeepers coach Russ Goodman while former player Kayla Sunvold comes aboard for her first season. In eight years piloting the team, Kobylinski is 93-42-16 (.669).
Central will open at home against Wisconsin Lutheran August 31 at 3 p.m.