The Verona boys soccer team is embracing the target on its back as the reigning Big Eight Conference champions coming into this season.
Yet, the Wildcats won’t be satisfied with simply repeating as conference champs. Coach Chris Handrick believes that with 11 seniors and 15 returning letterwinners, his team can reach the season’s final weekend.
“We’re an experienced team, which is exciting because we should be able to take our mentality to the next level,” said Handrick, who is 41-14-8 in three seasons at the helm. “Our guys are ready to win another conference championship and go to state.”
Verona reached the Division 1 regional finals in 2017, as it finished second in the Big Eight. The Wildcats ended up with with a solid 15-4-1 record, but lost 5-0 to Middleton in the regional finals.
Verona broke through last year with its first Big Eight Conference title (7-0-2), and won its first Division 1 regional title in program history.
Handrick was named conference coach of the year last season, but it was star striker Kyle Hagerman and Sun Prairie that made state for the first time in school history. The Wildcats beat Sun Prairie 2-0 to clinch the conference crown, but lost 2-1 to the Cardinals at Reddan Soccer Park in sectionals.
Handrick picked his team to repeat as conference champs ahead of contenders Madison East and Madison West in a questionnaire sent to the Press.
“We don’t want to end up in the middle or even second in the conference,” senior defender Sam Lynch said. “We want to do the best we can, and I think it helps if we stay humble.”
Lynch has been named first-team all-conference two years in a row.
“He’s one of the most solid and consistent players to play in any back line,” Handrick said of Lynch. “His strength and commitment to the game make him a standout. His quick reaction time and accuracy in tackles or 50/50 balls should be noticed.”
The Wildcats graduated two second-team all-conference performers in George Ohm and defender Mason Jordan, meaning the Wildcats’ back line and new keeper Nate Hanson will have to step up this fall.
Verona returns three all-conference players in the midfield, most notably first-teamer Eliot Popkewitz. He tied forward Jack Knight for the team lead with 11 goals last season with nine goals this season, he would become the program’s all-time leading scorer.
“Popkewitz should offer extremely solid leadership with dynamic play and vision to help distribute the ball into the offense,” Handrick said. “It shouldn’t be uncommon to watch him consistently place the ball in the back of the net.”
Popkewitz will be joined in the midfield by a pair of honorable mention all-conference players – Sam Abreu and Gannon Simonett.
Knight dished out a team-high nine assists and was also a first-team all-conference player last season.
“His athleticism goes unmatched by many as he reads plays extremely well to be the creative offensive threat in clutch situations,” Handrick said of Knight. “He is able to redirect the the ball cleanly for many needed finishes into the back of the net.”
Fellow forward Jonathan Gamez scored 10 goals in 2018 on his way to honorable mention all-conference honors, while second-teamer Bennett Luttinen has scored 14 goals in his two varsity seasons.
Verona 5, Brookfield Central 0
The Wildcats shut out the Lancers in their season opener Tuesday, Aug. 27, at Reddan Soccer Park.