MHS soccer opens tonight vs. Lawrence

By Grant Guggisberg

Ever the optimist, Manhattan High boys’ soccer coach Frank Alonso isn’t about to start doubting his team now.

Despite losing 12 seniors from a year ago, the ninth-year head coach expects big things from his squad in 2013, with a class of 12 new seniors back this year with something to prove after a second-round playoff exit last fall.

“We return 60 percent of the goals and 80 percent of the assists,” Alonso said. “So yeah, we do lose a lot, but this team is good. Obviously, 16 regular-season games will tell us that, but if you’d have asked me six months ago, I’d have said there’s a big drop off, but I don’t think there is. We’re right where we need to be.”

The Indians will open their season tonight at 6:15 on the new turf at Bishop Stadium against the team that ended their season a year ago, Lawrence.

The team returns familiar names like top scorer Eric Gray and its assist leader in Jonathan Turnley, while also bringing back the services of goalkeeper Alex Richt, who missed all of last year with an ACL tear last summer.

“We pick up Alex Richt, which is a huge bonus for us,” Alonso said. “He was out last year with an ACL unfortunately, but he’s a top goalkeeper in the whole state.”

Senior captain Peter Maier said the goal, as always, is to lead Manhattan to its first state berth in program history.

“The main goal is to obviously go to state for once, and get past that little bit of a stump,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to win a state championship, but our mini-goals are to take it one game at a time and knock off teams one at a time.”

Senior captain Matt Liotta isn’t concerned about a drop off after losing so many seniors.

“We reload every year,” Liotta said. “We have a strong coaching staff and strong players that come up every year. Manhattan doesn’t know down years.

“We have a lot of really skilled players in the sophomore skills. Some of them, us included, lack some physical aspects, but we’ll overcome that, I think.”

Alonso said one thing this team can’t afford to have is injuries, especially in a few key spots.

“We’re not very deep,” he said. “That is the challenge to our squad. We’ve got some very good young players, and we just need them to get just a little better. Not much better, because they’re good, we just have to get them seasoned and a little stronger.”

Offensively, Manhattan figures to continue pushing the envelope on offense and scoring goals in bunches. Alonso said he’s toying with the idea of running a 4-3-3 formation, playing with an extra forward, instead of its more reserved 4-4-2. In that formation, goals would likely be up, but the defense would have its hands full on occasion.

“We’ve been really fortunate that in the last two seasons, we’ve been senior laden,” Alonso said of his defenders. “We have 12 seniors on varsity, three of the four starters on the back line are seniors, plus a senior goalkeeper. Some might see us down this year, but we don’t see it that way.”

After losing to Lawrence last year in overtime to end their season, the Indians are hoping a solid summer is an indicator of good things to come in the high school season.

“We have really high expectations for this year,” senior captain Jonathan Turnley said. “We had a really good summer, so we want to continue that into the fall. We expect to win a lot of games, we want to be in every game and working hard and get the best results in every game.”

Maier said this team’s biggest hurdle will be overcoming a lack of size and a loss of physicality from last year’s senior group.

“We definitely lost a lot of size,” Maier said. “It’s an adjustment getting used to the smaller guys — the sophomores — playing against them in practice you can’t rough them up as much and get away with it. But I know that looking at the other teams in the league and around us, they’ve also taken some heavy losses with physicality and different strengths they’ve had.”

One advantage Manhattan will have is a brand new playing surface to call home. Instead of playing at Anneberg Park on grass, all home games will be at Bishop Stadium on the new turf.

“It plays well, which is really nice to have,” Turnley said. “It’ll be nice to have a place that is really Manhattan High’s. It plays different than the grass at Anneberg, but it plays similar to a lot of turf fields we play on throughout the year.”

Alonso said the turf will give Manhattan a home-field advantage throughout the season.

“USD 383 has helped our program,” Alonso said. “We should have a home field advantage on this field. We train on it, we play on it — it’s a phenomenal surface. It’s helping us play faster and faster.”

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