Mt. Vernon

Coach: Matt Mayhew (second year)

2015 recap: Mt. Vernon (16-3-1) won a sectional title and finished atop the Hoosier Heritage Conference standings with New Palestine at 6-1 last season. The Marauders lost to Center Grove 4-1 in the championship contest of the regional.

Leading the way: Leading scorer Carson Jones, a senior, put 16 goals in the back of the net last season for Mt. Vernon. Senior keeper Josh Powell, the reigning Daily Reporter Player of the Year, also returns.

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Key returners: Carson Jones (12), Josh Powell (12), Timmy Clone (11), Jarret Whitehouse (12), Seth Luke (12), Matt Schafer (12).

Outlook: On paper, Mt. Vernon might be the team to beat in the county and conference. However, that doesn’t necessarily help Marauders head coach Matt Mayhew sleep at night.

In Hancock County and the Hoosier Heritage Conference, soccer is highly competitive and each game is a battle. Mayhew learned that in his first season at the helm. Splitting the conference championship with New Palestine at 6-1, Mt. Vernon had a time with its county foes, losing to the Dragons (penalty kicks) during the regular season and topping Greenfield-Central (5-2) by a narrow 1-0 margin.

Winning rarely comes easy.

Nonetheless, Mt. Vernon does return several key pieces to a team that finished 16-3-1 last season and earned a sectional title after defeating New Palestine 3-0 in the championship game. The Marauders lost to eventual state champion (2A) Center Grove 4-1 in the regional final.

Senior forward Carson Jones, senior goalkeeper Josh Powell and junior forward Timmy Clone are back to give Mt. Vernon experience on both ends of the field. In the middle, senior midfielder Jarrett Whitehouse, who led the team with 12 assists last season, also returns.

“When we need that big save he (Powell) comes up with it,” Mayhew said. “He is definitely a big anchor for us there on the back line. If they do target on player, or two, we can kind of switch some things around and it opens it up for other guys. If our offense isn’t hitting right away, our defense is strong enough to hold.

“It makes it a fun team to watch.”

Jones scored 16 goals in 2015, while Clone was second on the team with 11. Whitehouse added five goals of his own, while Powell collected 204 saves and 11 shutouts in goal.

In all, nine starters and 10 seniors return for Mt. Vernon. Senior Seth Luke, junior Ben Wallace and senior Matt Schafer also will have large roles on the team. Luke scored five goals last season, while Schafer added four.

Two starters, Luke Yeadon and Devin Nelson, were lost to graduation. Each scored nine goals in 2015.

Over the summer to sharpen its game, Mt. Vernon participated in several tournaments, including the Sporting Indiana High School Showcase at the McCordsville Sports Park in late July. It finished 2-1 against stiff competition.

“Really the whole summer has been trying to just fill those holes,” Mayhew said. “And trying to keep the team chemistry going.”

In order to achieve its goal this season, though, Mayhew said the Marauders will need to be even more focused. The target is on their back.

“We had guys during tryouts step up and be vocal leaders,” Mayhew said. “We had guys getting on one another for not doing the right thing. They are already wishing we were up to speed like we were last season. They demand a lot out of each other.

“They are ready to get started.”

Season opener: The Marauders open their season at 7 p.m. Aug. 16 at Richmond.

New Palestine

Coach: Justin Sass (first year)

2015 recap: New Palestine (12-5-1) finished with a share of the Hoosier Heritage Conference title with Mt. Vernon at 6-1 and topped the Marauders on penalty kicks during the regular season before losing to them 3-0 in the sectional final.

Leading the way: Seniors Caleb Eagleson (six assists) and Levi Miller (four goals) return as the statistical leaders for New Palestine. Senior Spencer Corey is back to lead the defense.

Key returners: Levi Miller (12), Josh Wallen (12), Spencer Corey (12), Kyle Doss (12), Caleb Eagleson (12).

Outlook: Although a first-year head coach, Justin Sass is no stranger to Hancock County and Hoosier Heritage Conference soccer.

As a former assistant and student at New Palestine, Sass has breathed soccer in this area. And as a former defender, he will keep the same tradition alive that has served the Dragons so well in the past.

New Palestine allowed just 14 goals last season. Sass plans to make it even more difficult to score against the Dragons.

“Obviously my main goal every game is not to get scored on,” Sass said. “If you don’t get scored on you can’t lose. It’s been a staple of our program. The strength and rocks of our team are our defenders.

“We are going to take on that blue-collar mentality and defend all over the field. It’s not just our defenders, it’s our forwards and midfielders, as well.”

Erik Silvey allowed just 13 goals and made 193 saves in goal last season but was lost to graduation. However, senior defenders Spencer Corey and Mitchell Christopher are back to anchor the back line. Corey will split duties as a kicker for the football team.

On offense, the Dragons return a decent chunk of scorers with experience from last season. Seniors Levi Miller (four goals), Josh Wallen (three goals), Kyle Doss (two goals) and James Pridgen (one goal) each found net last year.

And senior Caleb Eagleson, who led the team with six assists last season, returns in the midfield — setting up what could be a nice lineup for New Palestine.

The team’s leading scorer from 2015, Ryan Miller (six goals), also graduated.

And finding a replacement for Silvey in goal has been a nice challenge for Sass, especially when his athletes work hard.

“We have a couple goalies who are pushing for the spot,” Sass said. “It is always good to have competition. We have a young kid and a senior who wants it pretty bad himself. It’s a friendly competition and fun to watch them compete against each other.”

Last season, New Palestine (12-5-1) earned a share of the Hoosier Heritage Conference with Mt. Vernon at 6-1 and beat the Marauders during the regular season on penalty kicks. However, Mt. Vernon earned revenge in the sectional final with a 3-0 win.

But this season is more about building a team, according to Sass.

“Kind of our main focus this season isn’t just building a team but establishing a program,” Sass said. “The seniors decided they want to leave their mark and legacy on the program.

“It’s cool to watch them take the younger guys under their wings and show them what we want our program to be about.”

Season opener: The Dragons open their season at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 16 at home against Herron.

Greenfield-Central

Coach: Matt McConnell (first year)

2015 recap: The Cougars (9-6-2) finished second in the Hoosier Heritage Conference at 5-2 and lost to New Palestine on penalty kicks (5-4) in the opening round of sectional action.

Leading the way: Captains Sean Julian and Luke Tuttle return for Greenfield-Central. Tuttle scored seven goals and added five assists last season, while Julian will anchor the Cougars defense.

Key returners: Luke Tuttle (12), Sean Julian (12), Braiden Sticka (11), Brandon Murphy (11), Jack Sifferlen (12).

Outlook: Like its rival New Palestine, Greenfield-Central welcomes a fresh face to the helm in 2016 with prior coaching and playing experience around the county.

A longtime assistant and former junior varsity coach for the Cougars, Matt McConnell, who graduated from Mt. Vernon, takes over a program that finished 9-6-2 last season and graduated its leading scorer, Enrique Ferrara (18 goals).

Greenfield-Central also finished second in the Hoosier Heritage Conference (5-2) and lost to New Palestine on penalty kicks 5-4 in the first round of the sectional.

McConnell said he expects another tight conference race this year. It always has been.

“The HHC will be competitive this season, and I’m certain our sectional will be tough,” McConnell said. “Mt. Vernon is returning a lot of talent from a team who, more or less, breezed through the sectional last year. I have no doubt Justin Saas will have his boys playing well at New Pal, and Shelbyville will be quality too.

“We know it will be a tough conference; it always is. But I hope to see growth in our squad that will pay off as we continue into the season.”

The Cougars do return two captains in senior midfielder Luke Tuttle and senior defender Sean Julian. Tuttle scored seven goals and added five assists last season. Julian has a tough nose for the ball and will lead the team’s back line.

Also expected to contribute on offense will be junior speedster Braiden Sticka, who scored eight goals in 2015, and senior midfielder Jack Sifferlen, who scored five goals and led the team with seven assists.

Junior Brandon Murphy added three assists and also will contribute.

Despite losing to the Dragons during sectional play, the Cougars topped their foes during the regular season 2-1. The team’s only other conference loss came to Mt. Vernon 1-0 who eventually won the HHC and a sectional title.

In hopes of getting over the hump this season, McConnell said Greenfield-Central played in a number of friendly matches this summer to get used to playing without the program’s all-time leading scorer in Ferrara.

“I like the summer friendlies because they give us a chance to see strengths and weaknesses, take a look at our incoming freshman, and have some competition as we head into the fall,” McConnell said. “We are happy with what we see so far, but we know there is plenty of work to do as we head into the season.”

Season opener: The Cougars begin their season at 7 p.m. Aug. 16 at home against Rushville.

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Kris Mills is a sports reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 317-477-3230 or kmills@greenfieldreporter.com.