by Nicholas Sullivan
COLUMBIA — “Win state.” That was the answer every senior on the Rock Bridge soccer team gave when asked to name a team goal.
A year after losing in the Class 3 state semifinals and finishing in a tie for third place, the Bruins are hungry to return to Anheuser-Busch Soccer Park in Fenton and bring home a state title. Whether or not they have the talent is unknown; whether they have experience has already been answered.
Fourth-year head coach Kyle Austin said he thinks this year’s team can build off of last year’s success.
“We lost a couple of key players, but we should still be successful,” Austin said. “We have a lot of senior experience. A lot of varsity experience for that matter. I think we only added one guy that didn’t get to play at least a couple of games at the varsity level last year.”
Loaded with 11 seniors and a roster full of players that contributed to last year’s successful postseason run, the Bruins boast one of the most experienced teams in the state.
Despite the return of several key players from last year’s team, captains Brady Wulff, Danny Baird and Ryan Taylor will be missed, Austin said. Wulff and Baird, who are now playing for Columbia College, were both All-State selections.
Overall, the Rock Bridge team lost seven seniors, four of whom were starters, but returns most of its goal-scorers and its entire defensive back line. The Bruins' top four goal-scorers from a season ago — Matt Kelly (27), Ryan Schmidt (9), Tyler Griggs (7) and Eli Sherman (5) – are returning this year.
Kelly, who led the team in goals and assists a season ago, is one of three player-elected captains, along with fellow seniors Sam Stoeckl and Kory McDonald. Stoeckl, McDonald and senior Tyler Brittain make up the starting back line.
“The team is very offensively dangerous, because all of our offensive players are well experienced in varsity play,” Kelly said.
Probably the biggest question mark heading into the season is who will be playing a majority of the minutes in goal for the Bruins with the departure of Wulff.
Senior Andres Bare was scheduled to get the start in the season opener Saturday at Rockhurst, but Alex Nichols, the assistant coach in charge of goalkeepers, made it clear that both back-up goalies, senior Jonas Gassman and sophomore Greg Kelly, will still see significant playing time this year.
“I feel like we have three of the top goalies in the state," Nichols said. "It probably sounds a bit arrogant, but I truly believe it.”