GLENDALE — With its roster thinned out by injuries and players opting to devote their talents to the United States Soccer Academy last year, the St. Francis High soccer program was forced to turn to some of its younger talent perhaps earlier than it would have liked to.
While that didn't necessarily translate to the best Mission League and CIF playoff results for the Golden Knights, the experience gained by those players could be one of the team's best assets this season.
And, while St. Francis did lose some standouts to graduation, they regained some considerable talents in forward Eric Verso and defender Jake La Porte, who led the team to a Southern California regional title in 2008 and are now returning for their senior years after playing for the Galaxy youth team last season.
"Max Cadena was just a star for us in the back, just the heart of the team, and then Dante Ramunno in the midfield," St. Francis Coach Glen Appels said of the team's key losses. "Those guys were really the core of the team, both on the field and as leaders.
"The nice thing is, because of the young guys, a lot of guys are able to step up and I think our work ethic in the offseason has been terrific. A lot of these guys have worked hard at getting better, but I think the real dynamic now is we just have more guys than we've had. Now, we have some depth."
Crescenta Valley, which won the first Pacific League title in school history last season, also lost some big names, most notably league co-most valuable player Gor Grigoryan, but looks to still be well stocked with talent for another run.
"Our team's looking very good this year," second-year Falcons Coach Kiel McClung said. "There were a lot of questions where we were losing the league MVP, a first-team defender and one of our captains."
Two new players are expected make a difference in Vahe Nalbandian, who previously played academy soccer and missed last year with a back injury, and senior forward Alex Berger, who played for the Galaxy youth team last year.
"We have a great core of returning players and then we're adding Alex and Vahe," McClung said. ""I think our team, right now from top to bottom, could be one of the best teams potentially CV has ever had."
Glendale and Hoover also made the postseason out of the Pacific League last season, but the Nitros lost 13 seniors and the Tornadoes are still looking to fill some holes, as well, such as the one left by league co-MVP Arman Ter-Barseghyan..
"It's a very young team with a lot of new players," Glendale Coach Tulio Marroquin said. "At the same time, they do have the ability to do it. So far, it's working well."
Hoover will count on better size and speed to try and take the next step this year.
"We will miss Arman and a couple defenders, but this year we've got some new guys who are interesting," Cadenas said. "They have talent and knowledge of the game."
The Falcons are looking like the favorite to repeat as league champions, but must fend off challenges from Glendale, Hoover, Muir, Pasadena, Arcadia, Burroughs and Burbank.
"The favorite team is still going to be Crescenta Valley, that's what I hear from all the other coaches," Marroquin said. "But every year it seems to be open. If a team gets hot they have a chance to get in the playoffs. We've managed to do it for the last three years."
Said Cadenas: "It doesn't matter who's the favorite. Anybody has a chance to get it."
Flintridge Prep did not qualify for the playoffs out of the Prep League last year. First-year Coach Fabrice Gautrat takes over a young team lost a lot of seniors.
We only have five or six seniors, but there's really good leadership quality there," Gautrat said. "I think that's going to be key for us helping out with all the young guys coming in.
"We have some really good players. It's very easy to coach them."