Before every season begins, East girls soccer coach Dylan Gruntzel separates his roster into three categories: girls that will start, girls that can rotate in as subs, and girls that are developmental players.
He felt especially confident about the list he had come up with for a Blue Aces squad that had plenty of talent coming back from a runner-up finish in the City League last season.
Then the injuries began. Not just one or two. By the time East had finished the Titan Classic last weekend, seven starters were lost to some sort of injury. A broken collar bone, a bruised spleen, a torn meniscus, concussions, you name an injury, and Gruntzel probably has a player with it.
“I’ve never seen anything like this as a coach before,” Gruntzel said. “Something like this happened back when I was a junior in high school, and that was about a decade ago. I’m having to pull JV girls just to fill out a roster now.”
And as far as those categories he had his player separated into to begin the season? Throw those away, at least for the moment.
“Those developmental players are now in the starting lineup,” Gruntzel said. “You can just tell by the way we play. It’s not the same. It’s not what I was expecting, but it is good for the future. Hopefully it will help us down the road.”
After losing five games total last season, East has lost five games in a row and is 1-5 going into Friday’s home game against Rose Hill.
But the season is not lost, as Gruntzel expects six of the seven injured players to attempt to return this season, meaning East, still stocked with the talent of a contender, could be a low-seeded team that no one wants to face in May.
“We still have a lot of talent and a lot of speed on this team,” Gruntzel said. “We just have to be a lot more patient. When we get all of those players back, hopefully we can get back to that level come playoff time because that’s the only time that matters.”
It took him just two seasons to get the Vikings into a state championship game and Birney has parlayed that success on the field to success recruiting numbers off it. Winfield currently has 38 players in its program.
“Interest is at all-time high,” Birney said. “Part of it is going to the state championship game. I think girls see that and want to be a part of that. Now we’ve got a lot of good athletes and a good foundation. It’s a good problem to have too many numbers.”
After finishing with a program-best 16 wins last season and a second-place finish in Class 4-1A, Winfield won the red bracket in the Titan Classic and is off to a 4-0 start to the season. Winfield plays at Circle on Friday.
The Vikings returned seven starters from last season’s championship game and are solid up and down the field, but their advantage is in the midfield, where Taylor Spencer, Karrie McNutt, and Madison Pollock work exclusively and engineer the attack.
“Wherever we go, we’re marked, one way or the other,” Birney said. “People want to beat us. It’s up to us to say, ‘No, you can’t.’ We’ve been blessed to have a lot of very talented ladies out and we’ve been able to develop this team for years to come.”
That’s because Trinity has had its season ended by Hayden for the past three seasons. So Tuesday, complete with yet another hat trick from senior Grace Linton, who has scored 12 goals already, was an important step for the Knights (5-1) in their chase for a state championship.
“It shows us that we’re going in the right direction,” Trinity coach Tom Nykamp said. “We had played a good half against them before, but to put a complete game like that together and shut them out I think makes a statement. Now we know we can beat them.”