Independence’s young soccer team grew up a lot last season and now eighth-year head coach Ryan MacRaild is eager to see what his Blue Devils can do with a year of experience under their belts.
The Blue Devils, who finished 10-5 overall and 3-2 in the Chagrin Valley Conference Metro Division, last season, return nine starters. They do have a couple of big holes to fill, but MacRaild believes his squad will be vastly improved this season.
“We took our lumps last season as a young squad with only two senior starters for most of the season, but those young guys have improved and are looking for more this year,” MacRaild said. “We’re filling in two central defensive positions from graduation but have a number of options that are growing into their own and have a chance to start. We are looking forward to see how far we have come since being a little down last year.”
The good news for the Blue Devils is the return of six all-conference performers in seniors Emmett Stralka, Aidan Coljohn, Casey McGhee, and Braden Flynn, and sophomores Khalil McDonald and Joey Jirmacek.
Stralka, a forward, was named first-team all-conference last fall. A medal winner in three events at the state track meet last spring, Stralka will be a tough matchup for opposing defenses.
“Emmett moved from defense to forward last season and scored a few goals for us,” MacRaild said. “His speed is second to none and will make him a great target player for us.”
Coljohn, also a forward, provides the Blue Devils with a solid 1-2 punch up top.
“Aidan had a good year last year, but showed major growth as an athlete during the winter basketball season,” MacRaild said. “I’m looking forward to his complementary play with Stralka.”
McGhee and McDonald will make things happen in the midfield.
“Casey will be our next center mid. As we have had in the past with (Evan) Collins, (Sam) Belitz and (Elek) McDonald, McGhee will run the show, contribute to our scoring and keep the mid organized. He can shoot from range and distribute well,” MacRaild said. “Khalil is a returning starter at mid. Don’t let his size fool you, he is one of our most experienced and skilled players who never backs down from a challenge. I expect great things from him this season and beyond.”
Jirmasek was a key piece in Independence’s defensive third last season and his experience will help the Blue Devils to settle in on the back end.
“Joey started at defense all season last year and showed great improvement and determination,” MacRaild said. “He is our hardest working player and his athleticism keeps him on the field.”
Flynn, a converted defender, returns to guard the net this season.
“We converted 6-foot-5 Flynn from defender to keeper last season and he took great pride in his new role,” MacRaild said. “He has great reaction saves and he has good vision as a distributor. He should have a great year.”
Junior defender Charlie McGreal also should make an impact for the Blue Devils.
“Charlie has grown so much as an athlete and soccer player over the past year,” MacRaild said. “He is a solid defender, he works hard on both sides of the ball, and helps build up the play out of the back. I’m looking forward to a great year from Charlie.”
Independence has the talent and experience to compete for the league title and to make another deep run in the postseason.
For that to happen, the Blue Devils have to maximize their strengths, overcome their weaknesses, and stay healthy.
“We will work on our team dynamic a little more than usual as we need to jell quicker than usual,” MacRaild said. “We have some big games early but also have a full four scrimmages scheduled to get the best team on the field early on. We need to stay healthy and work as a team. We have some great weapons that we need to get into the right places to score. Defensively, we will need to tighten up a little more than last year.”