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It's hard to believe Cougars are better

Soccer fans have had almost nine months to let the numbers sink in. Almost a year to appreciate what Durant did to its opponents last season and the results are still staggering.

The Cougars scored a school record 127 goals. That's more than four per game. They recorded 23 shutouts and allowed nine goals, both school records.

Goalkeeper Jackie Hinton faced no more than 10 shots in any game and the Cougars entered the Class 3A final four as one of the state's two undefeated teams. They finished the year 27-1-2, losing in the semifinals to eventual state champion Satellite and the state's all-time assist leader, Courtney Baines.

Then Hinton graduated and went to Oklahoma State where she appeared in five games, winning one. Midfielder Beth Outlaw (24 goals, 27 assists) also left, heading to the University of Houston where she finished the season with a goal and an assist while starting 11 games.

And, though she didn't graduate with Outlaw and Hinton, the Cougars will be without speedy forward Heather Williams who is graduating early and heading to the University of Houston in January.

In fact, if you look at last year's state semifinal game, one of the Cougars' best scoring opportunities came when Williams redirected a pass from Outlaw to the opposite corner of the goal. Satellite's keeper, who played on the U.S. under-19 team, barely flicked it over the crossbar.

But coach Dick Sheffield said those who play against the Cougars won't realize all the losses Durant suffered. And if they do, they won't have time to think about them.

"The one thing people will notice is we will be quicker," Sheffield said. "I got asked the question last year within a week of the end of the season and I said the same thing. I think this team will be as strong if not stronger. I honestly think it will be difficult to duplicate the record, but we can certainly duplicate the results."

We know what you're thinking: What is Sheffield talking about?

A team can't lose a 6-foot-3 goalkeeper who guarded the crossbar and patrolled the line with the reflexes of a cat and expect to be as good. Or can it?

A team doesn't lose one of the best defenders and transition players in the state and not expect a letdown. Or does it?

Can it lose one of the most effective forwards around and say it's going to be better than a state semifinalist that only lost one game?

Sheffield, who is in his eighth year as coach at Durant, doesn't blink.

"I think it's a realistic goal," Sheffield said. "A lot of things have to fall into place. One, you have to remain healthy. Two, you have to make good decisions on where people are playing. And then of course you have to get a little bit of luck.

"What we basically lost is a keeper and a defensive midfielder. Can you replace a Jackie Hinton? No. Would we be a better team with (Heather Williams)? Yes. But is there much of difference without her? No."

Part of Sheffield's optimism comes from the fact his roster contains a lot of familiar faces from last year. Faces that now have state tournament experience as opposed to February when the Cougars pulled into Pepin/Rood Stadium with only Williams having played in a state semifinal.

Faces such as Colleen Feeney and Emily Stutzman and Beth Remmert, who will anchor the Cougars' stifling defense. Add Raelynn Wapinski and the unit is "as strong, if not stronger," Sheffield said.

Offensively, Alicia Tirelli will star at midfield, joined by Brittany Tortorella, who missed part of last season with a knee injury, and Mandy Anton, who scored 21 goals. K.K. Kelly and freshman Gabi Rivera will lead the Cougars from the forward position.

The result is going to be something people have never seen out of a Durant team _ speed.

"When people see the speed we have they'll know what I'm talking about," Sheffield said. "I think this team, across the board, is going to be as strong or as deep. I've never had blazing speed up and down the line like this before."

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