LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

It's the question every competitor wants to answer in the affirmative.

Are you a contender?

The alternative to that, of course, is being a pretender.

And no one likes a phony.

But when it comes to Lebanon County boys' soccer this fall, the line between legitimate contending and waiting until next year has nothing to do with pretense. It's just extraordinarily thin. One late-season goal, lucky bounce or misstep and the dream is gone.

Currently, five of the county's eight teams are working under the belief their dream won't die until late in the postseason. However many are already off to 1-1 starts, having showcased both the strong and weak points of their respective cases.

Palmyra's A.J. Hull, coach of an 8-11-1 squad a year ago, makes no bones about a desire to hang near the top of a tough Mid-Penn Conference from start to finish this fall. The Cougars' goalkeeping and transition game is sure to put them up there. But how will they finish their scoring chances?

Meanwhile, scoring projects to be no issue over in Annville-Cleona. The Little Dutchmen are loaded up front, led by senior Matt Light who last we saw him captured the program's record for most goals in a career. But can the team overcome its almost complete absence of experience on the backline?

Cedar Crest had a different head coach not two months ago. So in steps Travis Bensing, previously a Falcons assistant, to lead a team that finished a respectable 8-7-4. Now charging into brutal Section One competition, what can Crest fans to expect from the new era?

Or what should folks following New Covenant hope for with only two returning seniors by a strong 11-7 example last year?

And then there's Elco. One victory away from reaching the state tournament in 2014, Kirk Keppley's bunch returns enough to threaten for a playoff spot again and with plenty of motivation at their backs. But how will the Raiders handle the disappointment of a 2-1 loss in their home opener to a Cocalico team that notched only three wins last season?

Of course, only time will tell.

But for now the question of contender or pretender looms. And it will be decision time for these clubs every moment they step on a field in 2015.

ANNVILLE-CLEONA

Head coach: Ray Kreiser, 20th season

Last year's record: 9-9

Key returners: Matt Light, Sr., F; Eli Setlock, Jr., MF/F; Gordon Parks, Sr., MF; Nathan Ulrich, Sr., MF; Alex St. Clair, Jr., MF/F; Koy Alwine, Jr. GK; Brandon Gardner, Jr., D; MF; Zach Landis, Jr., D.

Promising Newcomers: Javier Gonzalez Sanchez, Sr., D; Santiago Paris Gimeno, Jr., MF; Evan Pierce, Jr., D; Benjamin Rita, Jr., D; Trevan Elliott, Soph., MF; Lucas Guzman, Soph., MF; Stanley Miler, Soph., F; Josh Malloy, Soph., MF.

Outlook: Annvile-Cleona coach Ray Kreiser has been around the L-L block for 20 years, so it's easy to believe him when he says Section Three is going to be a toss-up behind perennial power Lancaster Mennonite. By extension, we should take him at his word when Kreiser says his Little Dutchmen are going to score lots of goals this fall.

Light is obviously the headliner for the red and white, who open almost immediately with Elco and the aforementioned Blazers. Therefore, Kreiser should know early whether his feeling about Light, Gordon Parks, Eli Setlock and others scoring in bunches will be correct. But if early returns from preseason practices and scrimmages are any indication, he should be in for a pleasant surprise.

"They've really been surprising me in practice at how well they've looked so far," Kreiser said. "They've looked a lot better than I expected them to. Now does that play out in the season? Only time will tell."

The key for Annville-Cleona will be shoring up its holes on defense and in the midfield left by graduation. Thankfully for Little Dutchmen, they've brought out 40 players to fill varsity and JV roster spots, including a number of talented strikers.

"We should be able to put more in the back of the net this year." Kreiser said. "Hopefully the offense will maintain the ball a little bit more and give the defense to grow."

CEDAR CREST

Head coach: Travis Bensing, first season

Last year's record: 8-7-4

Key returners: Mark Wolf, Sr.; Alex Stewart, Sr.; Cole Dumbauld, Sr.; Mike Weaver, Sr.; Charlie Wenzler, Sr.; Chad Ryland, Soph.

Promising newcomers: Collin Jones, Soph.; Raymond Moore, Jr.; Jake Beard, Jr., Josh Wildonger, Soph.

Outlook: Ten seniors will usher in a new era of soccer at Cedar Crest with first-year headman Travis Bensing at the helm. Bensing's debut campaign should be made easier by the seniors' return, most of them midfielders or strikers. In turn, the coach's toughest challenge lies with his defense.

"We're focusing on team defense first," Bensing said. "Then we work on our communication, and on offense, I'd expect a balanced scoring effort from everybody."

Up front, the Falcons have already received goals from seniors Mark Wolf and Charlie Wenzler in their opener against Ephrata. Though the back line struggled, allowing four scores in concert with sophomore keeper Josh Wildonger. Wildonger had been in a camp competition with fellow goalies Jake Beard and Zack Progin.

There's plenty of time to plug the defensive leaks, but don't expect any mercy from Section One foes who are on their way and in the way of Cedar Crest completing a postseason return.

"We want to make a push to make the playoffs again." Bensing said. "These guys work hard, and they're ready to play."

ELCO

Head coach: Kirk Keppley, fourth season

Last year's record: 14-8-1

Key returners: Blaine Troutman, Sr., D; Tucker Brown, Sr., D, Evan Gettler, Jr., F; Justin Kimmet, Jr., MF; Ethan Anspach, Sr., D; .

Promising newcomers: Joseph Ginder, Soph., D/MF; Clay Hain, Soph.; D/MF; Collin Hershey, Jr., D/F; Ethan Krall, Sr., GK; Matthew Berger, Jr., GK.

Outlook: Last year, the Raiders took the long way en route to the third-place game in the District Three tournament. This fall, they want to shorten the journey and keep the destination.

Senior captains Tucker Brown and Blaine Troutman are back to lead a much younger Elco group, though one still teeming with talent. According to coach Kirk Keppley, senior leadership and the team's work ethic will determine the Raiders' fate, which even with tempered expectations appears headed for section contention.

"We're a young team," Keppley said. "Every game will be an indication of what we need to do or can work on. But we're looking to challenge for the section and get back to league playoffs.

Unlike last season, finishing third in Section Three would earn the Raiders an L-L playoff berth this fall. Should Elco make the postseason, many thanks should be due to junior scorers Justin Kimmet and Evan Gettler. Gettler is another team captain and one of many Elco players who can play multiple spots. That versatility figures to serve the Raiders well down the stretch, particularly in event of injury or matchup problems.

Senior Ethan Krall and junior Matthew Berger are currently splitting time in goal for Elco.

LEBANON

Head coach: Todd Gingrich, second season

Last year's record: 5-10-3

Returning players: Ivan Aguilar, Sr., D; Bryan Boissard, Sr., MF; Vincente Reyes, Sr., MF.

Promising newcomers: Gabe Santiago, Jr., GK; Jesus Orihuela-Hernandez, Soph., MF; John McCumber, Fr., MF; Felix Kortright-Roman, Soph., F.

Outlook: The Cedars unfortunately grew accustomed to playing without Youssef Ouayakhaf over the latter portion of last season when their senior star went down with an injury. This season, Lebanon will lean on that experience with a strength-in-numbers approach and hope young talent can fill Ouayakhaf's shoes.

Senior midfielders Vincente Reyes and Bryan Boissard return to lead the Cedars alongside classmate Ivan Aguilar, the team's top defender.

"If he plays, we're really a lot better," Lebanon coach Todd Gingrich said of Aguilar. "He's our rock in the back."

Moving from the back to the front, the Cedars will look to sophomore Felix Kortright-Roman, who tallied two goals in a weekend game against Shippensburg, for scoring. He's among many newcomers looking to make an impact, including junior keeper Gabe Santiago, perhaps the most athletic player on the team.

"We have a lot of really young kids," Gingrich said. "I would like to see us just continue to get better. That's what's been neat over the last few years is knocking off programs that would've beaten us by eight goals 10 years ago."

While 2015 understandably sets up as a rebuilding year, there two other bonuses in store for Lebanon faithful.

"This is the fittest team I've ever had," Gingrich said. "I think we'll be able to press the ball pretty well."

LEBANON CATHOLIC

Head coach: Kerry Long, second season

Last year's record: 0-18

Key returners: Joe Gates, Sr., MF; Kameron Schott, Sr., MF; Bryce Haines, Sr., D,

Outlook: It's another mountain to climb for the Beavers on Assumption Hill with numbers lacking and inexperience abound.

"We're inexperienced," Lebanon Catholic coach Kerry Long said. "But we have heart."

The Beavers' midfield, led by Joe Gates, projects as the team's strength this season, because of its collective calmness and skill. The hope is for that part of the team's 4-2-3-1 formation to lead Lebanon Catholic into a couple victories, likely via counterattacks. But the immediate goal is to compete.

"It's about competing and being in games. There are some games I think we can win," Long said. "You've just got to keep the positives. They'll get more out of this than wins and losses. We do everything in our power to be successful.

"Nobody understands what we do. The challenges are astronomical, but they're great kids, the program is still alive, and that's what matters."

NEW COVENANT CHRISTIAN

Head coach: Jon Klohr, second season

Last year's record: 11-7

Varsity players: Alex Burns, Zach Burns, Lucas Concha, Nate Dubble, Zack Dunkley, Josh Gitzel, David Hubbard, Cody Keller, Nick Klohr, Toby Kornhous, Jevon Martin, Sam Meese.

Outlook: The Flames return under coach Jon Klohr after a winning season in 2014, bringing back only two seniors ahead of a large junior class. New Covenant scrimmaged Northern Lebanon twice in its preseason, working toward a team goal of sneaking into the conference playoffs.

"I'm anticipating us being better than .500," Klohr said. "If we play to the best in our league, we'd have a shot at the third place in our division."

New Covenant's strengths project to lie in the midfield and with ball handling, particularly at the feet of Zach Burns. Burns is a captain along with Cody Keller.

Where the Flames themselves could get burned is defensively. This is partly a byproduct of the program's smaller numbers and a new goalkeeper.

"We've got to go the whole game," Klohr said. "Especially the defense, they've got to finish strong."

NORTHERN LEBANON

Head coach: Jordan Auman, third season

Last year's record: 3-14-1

Key returners: Shane Reese, Sr., GK; Tyler Varvel, Sr., MF.

Promising Newcomers: Dylan Adams, Dylan Houser, Alex Almer, Caleb Anthony.

Outlook: Scoring was tough to come by last year for the Vikings during a campaign highlighted by a pair of wins over Lebanon Catholic and an early-season triumph against Wilson. This fall, Northern Lebanon has topped Wilson again and is hoping for better results to follow.

Those hopes lie first and foremost with senior keeper Shane Reese.

"He picks up everything you say, understands the field and play everywhere," Vikings coach Jordan Auman said. "With his experience as a senior, he's not afraid to say anything to anyone, which is good."

Fellow senior Tyler Varvel returns to patrol the midfield for Northern Lebanon's junior-laden squad, which is hoping to increase its number of scoring chances. That would be the first step toward achieving Northern Lebanon's primary goal in 2015.

"We always want to improve from the season before. So I'll take any kind of wins above last season's," Auman said. "My guys have put in a lot of work. We actually have a lot more capability of getting the ball forward this year in order to attack teams.

This is a team that people won't be expecting much from, but I think we're going to shock some people. The boys are putting in a good effort."

PALMYRA

Head coach: A.J. Hull, second season

Last year's record: 8-11-1

Key returners: Jared Bowman, Jr., D/MF; Robby Hanosek, Sr., F; Sean Bordner, Jr., F; Alex Hoffsmith, Sr., MF; Tanner Yaw, Sr., GK.

Promising newcomers: John Jeffrey, Soph., MF.

Outlook: "Victory through unity," a saying that once belonged to old Arsenal clubs, has been adopted by the newest Cougars squad this fall. And it will be victories through the Mid-Penn season that will come to define how their season goes.

Under the direction of second-year headman Andrew Hull, Palmyra is looking to take the next step into legitimate postseason contention. In order to reach that level, Hull had the Cougars running ragged in their preseason conditioning than a year ago. The reason was simple.

"This year I just had higher expectations going in," Hull said. The players knew what to do in the off-season and This year we had to make cuts, so it was seeing who would to stay and who prepared themselves."

Seniors Alex Hoffsmith, Robby Hanosek and Tanner Yaw were prepared, the former two serving as mainstays in Palmyra's midfield and front line. Yaw, on the other hand, plays as far back as possible, minding the Cougars net as the best stopper Hull says he's ever seen.

Junior defender Jared Bowman returns to help protect Yaw, while Nick DeCarlo and others role players from a year ago face a real opportunity to make an everyday impact. The team will be put to the test immediately after their 1-1 start via upcoming critical games against the Mid-Penn's best, Lower Dauphin, Hershey and later Mechanicsburg.

Hull anticipates boasting a strong transition game with his group and that the only roadblocks to achieving victory through unity will be finishing chances.

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://www.gametimepa.com/story/high-school/lancaster-lebanon/sports/2015/09/07/boys-soccer-preview-lebanon-county-teams-facing-contender/75263990/