Even at the largest high school in the state, coaches sometimes receive an influx of athletes that excites them.
South Kitsap coach Julie Cain experienced that two years ago.
That core of players, many of whom competed on the Wolves’ Class 4A state-playoff team two years ago, have returned as juniors to give South an experienced squad. Midfielder Hailey Parker and forward Rachael Prince both are third-year starters, while center back Adri Jackson, goalkeeper Elisa Randle and midfielder Hayley Romo all started in 2012.
“We have a small senior class, but that junior class is so strong,” Cain said. “I’ve seen so much growth in this class from a maturity and strength standpoint.”
That talent, along with some potential impact newcomers, has allowed Cain to shuffle the roster. Jackson, who also has played forward for the Wolves, will focus on the defensive end this year.
“We lost our starting back line, so we’re going to move her back there,” Cain said. “She plays on the back line with her club team, so it’s natural for her.”
Jackson will be joined at center back with senior Annie Santa Cruz, while senior Chelsea Foster and juniors Kylee Platt and Natalie Stephens also will play on the back line.
Behind them will be junior Elisa Randel, who helped the Wolves to a third-place finish in 4A Narrows with a 6-3-3 record and 9-4-3 overall mark, as a first-year starter.
“She’s done her work in the offseason,” Cain said. “She has come in the most fit and confident that I’ve ever seen from her.”
While South consistently played strong defense last year, its offense took awhile to evolve. That occurred during the second half of league play the Wolves outscored their opponents 28-7 en route to a 5-1-1 record.
Prince and senior forwards Kira Stanley and Emily Wilkins hope to continue that trend as South moves into league play.
“We’re going to play her up at forward this year,” said Cain, referring to Prince. “She has so much pace. We just want her in our attack a little more.”
Despite graduating Miranda Caballero, who now plays at Middle Tennessee State University, the Wolves return plenty of experience in the midfield. Both Parker — the team’s leading scorer last year — and Romo return. Along with them, Cain is excited about the addition of sophomore Ari de la Cruz. She is the sister of Nico de la Cruz, who helped South’s boys soccer team win the 4A state title in 2009 and later competed at Seattle University. De la Cruz scored a goal in the 78th minute of Monday’s 1-all tie at Eastlake.
“She looks just incredible this year,” Cain said. “She played at a really high level in the offseason.”
While Cain likes the composition of her team, she knows the competition is stiff. She said only Gig Harbor suffered serious graduation losses, but noted the strong local club teams always provide an infusion of talent to that school. Cain noted other programs, such as Bellarmine Prep, Central Kitsap and Stadium, are more experienced than a year ago. All of those teams, along with Olympia, will vie for the league’s only guaranteed state-playoff berth. Unlike previous years, teams that finish second through fourth in 4A Narrows must win two games at districts to advance to state.
“Winning the Narrows is crucial,” Cain said. “It makes it quite a bit harder to get through if you get second, third or fourth.”