TRINITY — Being without Sabrina Wagner, the school’s all-time leading goal scorer, was going to be enough of a bummer. But the Mitchell High girls soccer team also lost its third- and fourth-best offensive producers from last season.
And Kendra Hoffman, the outstanding senior midfielder headed to North Florida on a scholarship? She’ll be going there early, thus departing the Mustangs roster in a couple weeks.
Too much to overcome?
"Look, I’ve got some new girls that are pretty good," said coach Karl Kukec, sounding if not completely unconcerned, fairly optimistic that his Mustangs can still do their thing.
Since he took over the program in 2001, it’s been a postseason staple, reaching the state semifinals twice, including last year when it vanquished Melbourne in penalty to kicks to take the region title. Mitchell fell to Creekside 4-1 in the state semis.
To return, Mitchell will again have to matriculate past the likes of Melbourne or Viera, the latter being the 2016 state champ that has knocked Mitchell out of two region runs.
So what’s the plan? There’s no more Wagner, who had 41 goals last season, 154 for her Mitchell career, and just wrapped up a successful freshman performance at USF. Wagner actually played defense for the Bulls — Kukec did put her there on occasion — and ended up starting all 19 games for a USF team that reached the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Also gone are 12-goal scorers Noah Stokes (now at Coastal Carolina) and Alise Singletary. But fortunately the Mustangs do return junior Aja Graham, who recently committed to Troy University and is already over the 50-goal mark for her career having rung up 33 as a freshman.
And welcome, Eva Pitkoff. The sophomore, a club player for Tampa Bay United, has gone right to the front line, and with a four-goal effort last week against Sunlake tops the Mustangs in scoring.
"She’s really good," said Gianna D’Amico, a senior in her fourth season starting on the back line. "She’s a really good team player. When she has chances to score goals, she takes them, but when someone else is there she doesn’t just take it herself. And she drops back (on defense). She’s literally all over the field. Not a bad thing."
The reinforcements are about to multiply. Senior Shannon Greenwood, a former standout for Clearwater Central Catholic, has transferred to Mitchell. She’s nursing a foot injury but will be ready soon, if not in time for Mitchell’s Dec. 18 game against CCC.
Greenwood’s debut will roughly coincide with Hoffman’s departure.
"She’s a very good player," Kukec said of Greennwood. "She will be kind of the replacement in the midfield. I expect her to do very well."
Kukec did not consider phasing out Hoffman (four goals in three games), not wanting to "deprive" her of her desire to finish up her high school career on the field.
But the players have been getting ready for life without her.
"We’re trying not to have her set up anything, just so we don’t rely on her. But we’ve been taking advantage while she’s here. It’s really sad. Will be hard to adjust when she leaves," D’Amico said.
Big adjustments have already taken place. In their first game, the Mustangs led powerhouse Palm Harbor University 2-1 before falling behind 4-2. Kukec emptied his bench and the Hurricanes rolled 9-2.
Two days later at the same tournament hosted by PHU, it was 2-2 at halftime vs. Osceola before Kukec switched alignments, going with a 3-5-2. D’Amico, fellow senior captain Dalanie Guerra and junior Nora Shala comprised the back line.
"In the second half, they didn’t get a shot on goal. We know now the way we’re gonna play this year," Kukec said. "Everybody’s comfortable with it, the girls feel confident the way we’re playing now. With two defensive midfielders, we have a lot more coverage in the middle of the field. You’re gonna give up a little on the outside, but the middle is where 85 percent of goals are scored."
Mitchell won that Osceola game 4-2, then blanked Sunlake 7-0. And the Mustangs seem headed for another strong year.
"Every year I’m losing some very good players to college," Kukec says. "But we’re still in it. We just go on."