With seven returning starters and another year of experience under their belts, the South Rebels expect to see improvement this fall.
The Rebels finished 7-10-1 overall and 1-5 in the Western Reserve Conference last fall.
“We were young last year so many players now have at least one year of varsity experience, and two players will become four-year varsity letter winners,” said 13th-year head coach Rick DiBacco. “We’re ready to finish with a record above .500 and go at least into the third round of the state tournament.”
South went 1-1 in the postseason last fall.
To achieve their goals, the Rebels will have to replace their second, third, and fourth leading scorers from a season ago.
The good news is top scorer Luka Pranjeta returns in the midfield.
Pranjeta, a senior and two-time captain, scored 14 goals with eight assists last season on the way to earning first-team All-WRC and first-team All-Greater Cleveland honors. He also was named the team MVP.
“Luka is a four-year varsity starter and leading scorer last year,” DiBacco said. “(He) improved greatly from 2021 as a scorer and a team player. (He is) very accurate and dangerous with direct kicks and he has the potential to score the most goals for our program in at least 20 years. Luka is a complete player and one of the best all-around players in our area.”
Joining Pranjeta in the midfield are senior Drew Hace and juniors Connor Heramb and Brayden Gambatese.
Hace scored three goals with three assists last year.
“Drew split his game playing time 50-50 between outside midfield and outside defender,” DiBacco said. “Drew will play mostly midfield this year and could help to fill in when Luka or Connor need a break as a center midfielder.”
Heramb scored two goals with four assists and Gambatese added two goals with a pair of assists.
“Connor will be moving from outside midfield to center mid next to Luka. I’m expecting a lot of combination passing and scoring potential with these two playing side by side along with Alex (Webster) and Will (Hardy) on top. (He is a) very knowledgeable player and commits minimal mental mistakes; an excellent passer that is also a dangerous shooter,” DiBacco said. “(Gambatese) came off the bench and provided us a nice spark last season as a 10th grader, and this year he will be starting at the other outside midfield position. (He is) bigger and stronger and fits in very well with the other starters.”
South’s forwards include seniors Will Hardy and Connor Buttari and junior Alex Webster.
Hardy scored one goal with two assists, Buttari scored six goals on the JV squad, and Webster finished the season with six JV goals in just four games.
“Will missed the first 10 games of the 2021 season, but then was only about 75 percent when he returned to play,” DiBacco said. “(Alex is) a very skilled and fast player and will be a handful for defensive players. (Buttari) missed his freshman and sophomore seasons due to knee surgeries. (He) will be hard to defend against with any play in the air. (He has a) strong leg and will shoot from distance accurately.”
On defense, the Rebels will line up three seniors and a junior.
The seniors are Irvin Tokalic (2 assists), Conor Munson (1 assist), and Edward Cooper (1 goal). Riley Gardner is the junior.
Tokalic was the team’s most improved player last fall.
“(Irvin was a) starter last year and will be the main man in our back four defensive line this season. (He is an) experienced player with a lot of patience and can man mark very well. He is vocal and our leader of the defense,” DiBacco said. “(Munson) plays strong and hard yet can distribute soft and accurate passes to his teammates. (He) has the capability and knowledge of how and when to make offensive runs from a defensive position and can play offense very well as he had 10 goals for our JV team last season. (Cooper is) an experienced player and a perfect fit with our other three defenders; (he) can possess well and distribute to any open teammate. (Gardner) started every game for us as a sophomore last season. (He) does an excellent job of defense with one-on-one marking and forcing the opponent to turn over ball possession. (He) will be tougher this season with more the additional experience from two years on varsity.”
Junior Ben Wynn and sophomore Roberto Webster will mind the net.
Wynn recorded 146 saves with a 2.60 goals against average last season. Webster moved to keeper from the midfield/forward positions.
“(Wynn showed) a lot of improvements from his freshman season and lowered his goals against average against tough teams. Ben is bigger and stronger and the expectations are for him to continue to improve and get better,” DiBacco said. “(Webster) joined our team in mid-September last year and played most midfield/forward. (He is) switching to goal keeper but still could play some on the field. (He is) a very skilled player with a very strong leg.”
While the Rebels have some big holes to fill, DiBacco is confident his squad will improve upon last year’s record.
To do that, the Rebels will continue to focus on a team-first approach.
“With an almost 50-50 blend of seniors and juniors, they need to focus on playing as one unit and using all of the players on the field to maintain longer offensive possessions,” he said. “Team play is what we need to concentrate on and to be focused to achieve it. We will have some speed this year, so we also hope this will help this year to increase our scoring.”