Kirtland’s first trip to the state Final Four last season ended with a loss to eventual state champion Archbold.
The Hornets return five starters and several others with varsity experience, which leaves the team with lofty goals and expectations.
“With five returning starters, we will have a solid base upon which to build,” 22nd-year head coach John Valentic said. “Much depends on how quickly the new players acclimate to their roles and understanding of how we want to play.”
Kirtland finished the 2018 season with a 17-2-3 overall record and a 4-1-1 mark in the Chagrin Valley Conference Valley Division.
The league’s expansion led to a restructuring of the divisional alignments. Kirtland remained in the Valley Division but defending champion Independence moved to the Metro Division along with Beachwood and Wickliffe.
Kirtland now will compete for the Valley Division title against Berkshire, Cardinal, Edgewood, Geneva, Grand Valley and Lakeside.
Success in the division and beyond starts with Kirtland’s ability to understand the game and play at a high level throughout.
“Running and hustling is easy,” Valentic said. “What sets good teams apart from the rest is developing an understanding of the game and then when and how to apply that understanding throughout the game.”
Valentic is fortunate to have a core group of players who have demonstrated the ability to think and respond to each situation faced.
At forward, the Hornets have three quality players back in senior Josip Mijic-Barisic and juniors Mario Rodin and Marko Cubela.
Mijic-Barisic scored six goals and added eight assists last fall.
“(He’s a) versatile player who operates best on the wing where he can serve the ball accurately and with pace,” Valentic said.
Rodin scored nine goals with eight assists and Cubela finished with 12 goals and two assists.
“(Mario) has a nose for the goal and has improved his ability to create his own shot which will make him more of a threat,” Valentic said. “(Marko) is tough, fearless and will work to be in the right place at the right time.”
Senior Vikram Sundararajan and sophomores Peter Vukovic and Petar Mijic-Barisic will patrol the midfield for the Hornets.
Sundararajan scored one goal with two assists last season. Vukovic added six goals and seven assists and Mijic-Barisic recorded three goals and four assists.
“(Vikram) is quick and energetic. Hopefully, Vik can generate our attack from the midfield,” Valentic said. “Peter had an excellent freshman year and will look to build on that to be an important player for the team. Petar will have a big responsibility to be our linking player as well as providing defensive cover for our back four.”
Seniors Paul Kosem and Justin Aranavage and sophomore John Raguz are projected to start on the backend.
All three finished the 2018 season with one assist to their credit.
“John started every game as a freshman last year. He has improved his positioning and we will need him to be the anchor and vocal leader from the back,” Valentic said. “Paul is a good defender who knows when to attack out of the back. His good, quick distribution triggers our transition game. Justin is a returning letterman who gained confidence from his important role last year. He is fit enough to get forward often and pose problems for our opponents.”
Senior Tyler Banyasz returns in goal after recording 45 saves with 14 shutouts last season. He allowed just .55 goals per game.
“Tyler will be a three-year starter that is an excellent shot-stopper and good with his feet,” Valentic said. “It’s like having an extra field player in the back which we will try to utilize as much as possible.”
With a solid core and several youngsters ready to step in and fill the holes, Kirtland should once again have an opportunity to enjoy a long postseason run. It all comes down to how quickly the team can jell and overcome the challenges it will face throughout the season.
“The challenge is blending in those kids that play all the time with those that are part-timers,” Valentic said. “There are different levels of skill, soccer IQ and passion. That means the coaching staff has to work to get things as balanced as possible.”