With nine returning starters and four other letter winners returning from last year’s team that finished undefeated in the regular season and went on to finish 19-1 with an appearance in the Division III regional semifinals, Independence enters the 2018 season with high expectations.
The Blue Devils, who are 65-7-5 under fifth-year head coach Ryan MacRaild, have their sights set on another Chagrin Valley Conference championship and a deeper run in the postseason.
“I can see this team competing again in the CVC with the likes of Wickliffe and Beachwood,” MacRaild said. “We know they have a good returning core of players so the challenge will be on us to raise our game and fill our gaps as well as possible. Hopefully, with the returning talent, we can also compete for another district championship, but that road will also be rough with repeats from Wickliffe, Beachwood and Elyria Catholic, returning nearly all of their starters and having faced them all twice last season.”
Leading the way for the Blue Devils this season is senior Sam Belitz, who was named first team All-Ohio and also earned the Greater Cleveland Soccer Coaches’ Association Player of the Year award.
Belitz will team up with junior Elek McDonald, who led the team last fall with 22 assists, and junior Christian Streibel.
“Sam has been working hard in the offseason lifting and putting extra muscle to his over 6-foot frame. He started playing club this offseason and it has helped develop his game even further,” MacRaild said. “Elek had a great year assisting and this year we look to him to play a more central role. He has great patience and skill on the ball, but he has grown defensively as well. Christian continues to provide solid performance and creativity as a junior this season. He works well to build from the wings and will be another weapon on the attack.”
McDonald was a first team All-CVC and honorable mention All-Greater Cleveland honoree.
Senior Seamus Kral and junior Adam Leibal are dangerous up front.
Kral scored 14 goals on the way to earning second team All-CVC and All-GCSCA honors.
“Seamus has become a very skilled finisher with speed and agility working in his favor. He was the third leading scorer on our team with potential to lead the team,” MacRaild said. “Adam played a defensive role last season but has potential to change a game with his straight ahead running and quick decision making. He is a good defensive player and can create with his hustle and hard work.”
Defensively, three out of four starting defenders return.
Jimmy Senick, Kyle Streibel and Joe Wisniewski have the experience to protect first-year starter Ethan Manelski in goal.
“Though the loss of graduated senior Luke Wisniewski will be felt, these three along with a few other key players will hold our defense in good shape for the season,” MacRaild said. “It would be difficult to match our 12 straight shutouts from last season, but with many returning pieces, the bar has been set.”
Manelski will try to fill the shoes of three-year starter Tyler Korecko.
“Though Ethan was ready last year, one more year behind Tyler has truly proven valuable as his training and preparation, as well as field playing experience have made him a complete keeper for his junior and senior seasons,” MacRaild said. “He has great range and reflex saves as well as shot stopping power and comes off his line well.”
The Blue Devils recorded 12 shutouts last season, including 11 straight, but they’ll take nothing for granted this fall.
“We really need to find our own identity,” MacRaild said. “We have a tradition of success over the past few years. This team can either live up to it or not; the decision is theirs. Staying healthy will be key as we picked up a few difficult injuries through the playoffs which hindered our success.”