BY PAUL HINES
MT. VERNON — The Rams soccer team returns several veterans in key positions to this year's squad.
The middle of the field is where most of the experience lays for the Rams and first-year coach Jim Duncan.
“You have to be strong up the middle,” Duncan said. “That's where you have to have your strongest players.”
J.J. Wiegel is a multiple-year starter in goal and returning to the team's lineup as a senior. Central defense sees the return of Joseph McDanel and Nathan Arnold.
“To be able to look at J.J. as my keeper, and then I've got my two veteran centerbacks. I've got Joseph and Nathan. It won't get any better than those guys,” Duncan said.
Adam Donoho and Crayton Turner are expected to see playing time at the right fullback position. Aaron Steele and Josh Russell will see action on the left side. Duncan added the outside defensive positions are critical because of offensive support they give to the Rams.
“They are our wide option,” Duncan said. “They move up the field with the attack. When we cross the half and get into our attacking third, those guys cross with us and they're there for the wide option also to play that 30-yard ball into the penalty box.”
Braydon Riley will anchor the center of midfield and support the forwards. Mac Jones brings back his attacking presence near the opponents goal mouth.
Josh Cortez and Aiden Ezell will share time at the right midfield slot. On the left side will be Dalton McGowen. Duncan added that Donoho could push into the left midfield position. Hunter Schrader along with Stephen Cortez along with Donoho and Ezell could play in a defensive midfield position behind Riley in the center of the field.
Isiah Meyer, a sophomore, joins Jones up top at the forward position.
“Mac, of course, is more skilled than Isiah because he's got more experience, and he's been around the ball more,” Duncan said. “But Isaiah's got a nose for the ball. He really likes to go to the goal as does Mac. I'm really happy with the two guys up front.”
Mt. Vernon pushed Marion to the brink in the regional final game a season ago. The Rams and Wildcats traded goals throughout the game. But Marion scored with about a minute remaining to claim the title. Marion continued its postseason run until a loss in the super-sectional against Urbana, which finished as the state runner up in 2A.
Duncan said the team spent the summer trying to improve their fundamental skills primarily.
“We wanted to work first of all on our technical skills,” Duncan said. “We need to be little better passing team, a little better first touch, so just working with the ball.”
The other focus of the summer centered around conditioning.
“(We) just wanted to get the guys ready for the rigors of the season.
“We had a good summer. We had a good turnout. The guys, they bought into it, and they had a pretty good excitement and passion.”
Duncan had 37 players tryout for the team this fall. The group includes sizable freshman and senior classes.
“I have 13 freshmen, and we haven't had that many freshmen come in a long time,” Duncan said. “We're big on the top with our seniors. We have big numbers with our freshmen.”
Duncan added that in addition to the high numbers, he possesses quality players as well. A small senior class from a season ago means there wren't too many spots to fill in the starting lineup this year.
“I've got a good problem,” Duncan said. “My problem is I've got too many qualified players and too few spots to fill. So that's where we are right now. That's a good problem to have, I guess.”
Mt. Vernon opens the season on Aug. 29 in the Metro East Cup held in Edwardsville. The Rams open the tournament against Freeburg. Duncan said the event should give the team good preparation for a trip to Carbondale the following week. Typically, the match against the Terriers has been the season opener.
“(The Metro East Cup) was a good benefit last year, and it's going to be the same this year,” Duncan said.