The Grain Valley boys soccer team had a couple of special years in 2015 and 2016.
The Eagles made their first Class 3 state final four two years ago and finished third and then made a return trip last season and finished fourth.
Many of the core players from those teams have graduated, including 2016 all-state players Alex Thiessen, Noah Espinosa, Elijah Allen and Cooper Childers.
There are going to be some holes to fill for the 2017 Eagles, but they have two things going for them after losing a bevy of talented players – chemistry and hard work.
“This team has a little bit of a different look,” Grain Valley coach Tyler Nichol said. “We’re really excited about this group. Our senior class is strong. This year’s senior group is probably the hardest working I have ever had. They have always have been the ones to show up early and leave late and pick up the balls and the water jug after a game.”
It will be a senior-laden squad taking the field this fall, as seven return with varsity experience.
Among those are defenders Jackson Brady and Nate Chaiprathum; combo midfielder-defenders in Drake Bray and Logan Welle; midfielders Brandon Speigle, Nathan Racz and Jake Simpson; and goalkeeper Colton Henry.
“We think we can still be a really good team,” Nichol said. “And some of these guys have the experience of going to two final fours. Coming into the season, they have that experience when the time comes.
“These guys know what to expect and have played against tough competition and know what to expect when they get into the middle and the end of the season.”
One of the main challenges for the Eagles will be replacing the scoring prowess of Thiessen and Espinosa. The duo combined for 50 goals and 29 assists.
“We relied a lot on Alex and Noah to score a lot of our goals and we took that for granted,” Welle said. “We’re going to have to have a lot of those people step up.”
Some of those guys who could pick up the scoring include Racz, Simpson and Speigle, Nichol said.
“Brandon Speigle is going to be one for sure that steps up and puts some balls in the back of the net,” Nichol said. “He’s really grown a lot these past couple of years.”
On defense, the Eagles will have to find some new players to fill out a back line led by Chaiprathum.
“We lost a lot of defenders from last year,” Chaiprathum said. “I think we just have to step it up and play our game and we’ll be fine.”
Another challenge will be the lack of depth for the varsity team. Nichol said he expects 13-15 players to be on the squad and said there will be very few substitutions in any given game.
“We don’t have the depth we had the last couple of years,” Nichol said. “This is probably the least amount of kids that we’ve had because we had such a large senior class last year.
“Conditioning is going to be a big thing. These kids are going to have to be fit to play 80 minutes.”
Although there are voids that need to be filled, Nichol said he has a well-balanced squad that’s not necessarily elite in any one area, but good in every aspect.
“I think the first year we made state, we were more of a defensive team,” Nichol said. “We didn’t give up a goal for the whole playoffs until we got to the final four. Then last year we were offensive heavy with Noah, Alex, Elijah and Cooper. This year we’re a little more even-keeled than we ever have been. I think we are solid to great at just about everything.”
And that’s enough for the Eagles to make it back to the state final four for a third time, Nichol said.
“With this group, it’s still a realistic thing,” Nichol said. “It’s going to be hard. There’s a lot of good teams this year. However, I don’t think there is one Class 3 team in our region that you look at and say, ‘Oh, wow!’ There are some good teams out there that can beat each other on any given day.”
“I think the goal doesn’t change for us,” Welle said. “The expectations don’t change for us. We are building a legacy and add a next step to it.”