PETERBOROUGH — On paper, things seem favorable for the ConVal boys’ soccer team as it heads into a new season.
The Cougars are coming off a Division II state championship last season, and look to be in position for another big run with a returning class of 15 seniors that includes three All-Division II First Team honorees, and one Honorable Mention.
The Cougars’ season begins Aug. 30 with a 4 p.m. road game in Amherst against Souhegan, amid a lot of hype.
But third-year coach Josh Smith — last year’s Division II Coach of the Year — and his players know that they will have a target on its back this season, and they can’t rest easy as they work to defend their title.
“It’s really easy to be complacent after that, especially if you’re returning a lot of people,” senior goalkeeper and first team honoree Mather Kipka said. “So what we need to do is just focus on being ready to work and consistently improving and getting better, and not laying back and taking it easy.”
Defense was the bread and butter for the Cougars last season; they recorded 12 shutout wins and allowed just nine goals in the regular season and playoffs combined.
A key member of the defense graduated: four-year starter first team all-division back Manny Bowman. And Cole Turner, a vital backup defender who decided to go a different route in his senior season, is also missing. But with the rest of the defensive core returning — including Kipka and first-team back and senior co-captain Zach Kriebel — and other players like senior Connor Close looking to step into Bowman’s spot, it’s a promising, reason-to-be-excited picture.
“We’ve tried a number of different combinations, Kipka said, “I think we’re starting to close in on what is going to be our prospective starting defense. I think it’s gonna work out just fine, once we get that chemistry down.”
The Cougars lost key pieces to graduation on the offensive side, too. Co-captain Max Richard was a first-team honoree and the biggest scoring threat on a team that averaged 2.6 goals per game in the regular season; Evan Merwede and Sam Sebert were both big depth pieces on the offense; and even Bowman contributed significant scoring as a two-way threat.
Senior co-captain Finn Wegmueller — who scored the team’s final goal in a 3-2 state final win over Coe-Brown Northwood — said the team had no problem generating scoring chances last year, but did struggle finding the back of the net, so that will be a focus this season.
“We’re just gonna really work on shooting this year,” Wegmueller said. “Last year we did have some issues on that end, and I think this year we’re gonna tighten it up, make sure we can really put away the goals and bring in the wins.”
Smith added that he expects some new players to step up offensively.
Among the names mentioned by Smith and Wegmueller were senior striker Colby Knight, an all-division honorable mention last year, first-team midfielder and senior August Marshall, and senior Taylor Burgess, who last season scored three of his five goals in the final six games.
Co-captains Wegmueller and Kriebel expect to take on larger leadership roles following the departure of Richard and Bowman.
“Max and Manny, they were great leaders. It was awesome to have them on the team as the older seniors; we looked up to them,” Wegmueller said. “So, I feel like Zach and I are definitely stepping up into that position.”
The Cougars’ schedule features 10 games against playoff teams from last season: Two games against Lebanon — which finished as the No. 9 seed and lost to ConVal in the quarterfinals, 1-0 — one at home on Sept. 6, and one on the road on Oct. 8; a Sept. 10 road game against No. 10 Plymouth; a Sept. 24 road contest against No. 2 Oyster River, the only team to beat the Cougars last year; a Sept. 26 road match against No. 12 Pelham; two games against No. 13 Kearsarge — one on the road on Oct. 1, and one at home on Oct. 18; an Oct. 4, Homecoming Weekend matchup against No. 5 Hollis-Brookline; an Oct. 10 home game against No. 8 Merrimack Valley; and an Oct. 25 regular season finale at home against No. 7 Bow, which upset Oyster River in the quarterfinals before losing a one-goal game to Coe-Brown in the semis.
“I think it’s just the same teams that are usually up there,” Smith said when asked about opponents to watch out for. “I think Merrimack Valley will have a solid team ... Hollis-Brookline, Lebanon, Bow, Oyster River, Coe-Brown could be tough again this year.
“Obviously when you win the championship, teams are going to be sort of gunning for you a little bit,” Smith added. “So, I think we need to not underestimate anyone and just be ready for a good game every single day.”