Last season, St. Francis High was back to its old successful self, as it advanced to the quarterfinals of the CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs. The Golden Knights will look to keep things running smoothly and senior leadership and depth could well be the keys.
The Golden Knights have depth in goal, key pieces back in the midfield led by senior Austin Frank and a pair of dangerous strikers up top in seniors Eric Bocanegra and Billy McCreary.
Senior Paul Dean, last season's starter in goal is back, as is junior keeper Luca Coppola, who sat out last season with an injury.
"We're really happy to have two quality goalkeepers," veteran St. Francis Coach Glen Appels said. "That's a great start for our team."
Senior center back Thomas Banks is back to anchor the back line, but figures to be flanked by younger players making their first forays into varsity.
"We have a couple outstanding young guys," Appels said, "so we're trying to find exactly which guys are going to fit in there, but we have some choices, which is nice."
One blow to the Knights' fortunes is the decision of All-CIF forward Mark Verso to forgo his junior season of high school to play with the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
As per usual, the Golden Knights will kick off the season by tackling a tough nonleague schedule in order to prepare for the ultra-competitive Mission League, where the team placed second last season. Some of the juicier matchups will include Santa Barbara, St. John Bosco, Santa Monica, Crescenta Valley and a return to the Nike Invitational in Oceanside.
"We look at everything with an eye on the playoffs, as well," Appels said. "You have to be ready for the Mission League and then the Mission League gets us ready for the playoffs. Challenging ourselves is the way to go, especially with the seniors we have and the leadership they're providing."
In the midst of a rebuilding process, La Cañada is handing off the reins to a new leader after the Spartans' coach for the past two years, Barry Ritson, stepped down last month.
Alex Harrison, who is a coach for the Los Angeles Premier Futbol Club — where Ritson is the director of coaching — is taking control of the Spartans.
The hiring process has been a whirlwind for Harrison, who was offered the job Nov. 23 (but won't be officially hired until approved by the La Cañada Unified School Board at its upcoming meeting on Tuesday) and conducted tryouts the same day.
Harrison has the benefit of retaining all of Ritson's knowledge about the Spartans and the Rio Hondo League, as Ritson is serving as a volunteer assistant coach with La Cañada this season.
The Spartans have a healthy mix of experience and youth with six seniors, five juniors, five sophomores and five freshmen compiling the squad.
Harrison knows it's a big change from last year, after the Spartans graduated three of their top-four goal scorers and leader in assists in 2011.
"I don't know if we will have as strong a team," Harrison said. "I know Barry's record will be a tough act to follow."
Ritson had a 43-3-1 record in two years, while leading La Cañada to the quarterfinals and second round of the CIF Southern Section Division V playoffs.
There definitely isn't any panic in La Cañada, as Armand Bagramyan, a junior forward, returns for the Spartans after scoring 21 goals and notching eight assists as a sophomore.
"He is probably going to be our go-to guy," Harrison said.
Senior forward Jeff Becker, who had seven goals and three assists last year, and junior forward Marc Kaesler will look to put up more goals alongside Bagramyan.
"To me, it's a good squad and a good team," said Harrison, who describes himself as an attack-minded coach who likes to keep possession. "They pass, touch the ball really well and don't force it around. They got what I like to do already there."
Senior defender Garrett Apel and senior midfielder Zaki Khan also return to anchor La Cañada's back line and midfield, respectively.
Juan Carrasquero, a speedy freshman forward, also has the potential to make a big impact for the Spartans this season.
"We have some cornerstones to work around here, a lot of them are just green," Harrison said. "We are going to have to see what happens when they have some games under their belt."
Harrison is intent on maintaining La Cañada's winning tradition in his first year, as the Spartans have won the Rio Hondo League championship the past two years.
"I would love to win league with the boys," Harrison said. "That's our No. 1 goal. I just want the boys to go out, work hard and give 110% every game. If we go out and play the right way, I don't mind losing.
"It will take some time to develop into what we can be."
In the Prep League, Flintridge Prep will begin a new era under Coach Matt Bowden, the third Rebels coach in as many years.
"I'm excited for the season," Bowden said. "In the short time I've had the team and seen them, I'm pleased with what I've seen. …I'm looking forward to a positive season.
"We want to play in a fast-paced and a passing style, which is how the game should be played really, anyway. So far [the plan] is just to encourage them to move the ball around the field quickly, just support the play with the ball and look to go forward at every opportunity."