Cody Saunders won't understate his team's talent. The Minot High School boys soccer team has 16 upperclassmen, including 10 seniors, and maybe the program's best shot at its first state title since 2006 - the Magicians' only championship.
He knows a roster loaded with talent doesn't guarantee success and the MHS coach is hoping the squad buys into an attack based on passing rather than dribbling. The Magicians are coming off a 14-5-2 season that ended with a fifth-place finish at the state tournament.
"A lot of talent, but with that comes individuality and we need to be a team," Saunders said, "so passing is probably what we're gonna be focusing on. Talent is definitely there and we have depth and we have leadership because a lot of them are older."
Minot High School senior goalkeeper Garrett Weishaar deflects a shot during Friday’s practice at Optimist Soccer Complex.
Saunders wants his players, who stayed sharp during the summer with club programs, to emphasize team play. Club tournaments are often showcase opportunities because college scouts primarily attend those over high school competitions.
"I think they've had success - a lot of them - with dribbling and I just don't think it's gonna work in high school," Saunders said. "It's just a different game. Club team's more 'This is what I can do' - not showing off - but showcasing their talent. Where this is just hard work, getting after it every day, and like I said, passing, working as a team."
Junior forward Ekow Annan, the team's second leading scorer in 2012, is the Magicians' top offensive threat and can ably assume the top role from his brother and graduate P.K. Annan. P.K. Annan scored 27 goals to go along with nine assists last season, while Ekow Annan tallied 24 goals and 14 assists.
Meet the Magicians
Seniors - Aaron Bolinske, Ryan Crabtree, Tyler Crabtree, Drew Johnson, Ty Johnson, Joey Lisner, Ben Love, Jake Saunders, Jacob Schmidt, Garrett Weishaar
Juniors - Ekow Annan, Jay Gray, Justin Kovich, Teegan Olson, Blaise Stanley, K.J. Wright
Sophomores - Kaleb Burhham, Matt Oswalt, Malik Thom
Eighth-grader - Josh Johannsen
Aug. - 17, vs. Grand Forks Central at Jamestown, 5:30 p.m.; 22, vs. Bismarck Century, 7:30 p.m.; 27, vs. Mandan, 7:30 p.m.; 29, at Bismarck St. Mary's, 6 p.m..
Sept. - 3, at Bismarck High, 6 p.m.; 6, at Jamestown, 7 p.m.; 12, at Bismarck Century, 7:30 p.m.; 13-14, at Fargo Invitational, TBD; 17, vs. Bismarck High, 7:30 p.m.; 21, vs. Fargo Davies at Mandan, TBD; 26, at Mandan, 7:30 p.m.; 28, vs. Mandan, 2 p.m.
Oct. - 1, vs. Bismarck St. Mary's, 7:30 p.m.; 4-5, West Region Tournament at Mandan, TBD; 10-12, State Tournament at Jamestown, TBD.
Ekow Annan will be joined in the attack by a handful of returning players including senior Joey Lisner and sophomore Matt Oswalt. Senior midfielders Jacob Schmidt and Ryan Crabtree will look to facilitate the offense from their spots in the center. Flanking them is junior K.J. Wright and other players vying for a starting role.
"I think we just have to play our game," Ekow Annan said. "We can't get selfish. You may have a good shot, but somebody could have a better shot, so you just gotta find them. In the end, it's the team goals that count. It's not how many you got.
"We're trying to play passing, attacking football, but then again we gotta make sure we're staying alert on the defensive side, so we can win the ball back quickly."
Annan should feel confident in the back-line support he will receive. Seniors Ben Love and Drew Johnson are the core defenders in front of senior goalkeepers Garrett Weishaar and Jake Saunders, Cody's cousin.
Weishaar is poised to play the majority of the time, as he did last year.
"I think playing last year and kind of getting the feel for being the starting keeper and then going to (West Region) and state - the whole feel of it kind of really helps this year," he said. "I think we'll be a lot more confident in the defense and definitely know a lot more of the players on the field, now that I'm a senior."
A strong run at the title must include success against Bismarck Century and Bismarck High, perennial favorites in the West Region. MHS will employ either 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formations depending on available personnel and each game's opponent. The four-man defense will be a constant.
"Century's always No. 1, tough team to beat and our rival is Bismarck High," Cody Saunders said. "If we can go down and compete well against those two it could be us, but it's hard going to their town and playing well against Bismarck."
Love, who also serves as the MHS football team's place-kicker, expects a strong showing against teams in both regions.
"I think we can go pretty far," Love said. "We lost three starters and the guys that are filling in, they're easily just as good with the team. I think we'll actually be better than we were last year."
MHS opens its season against Grand Forks Central in Jamestown at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
Tim Chapman covers Minot High School athletics. Follow him on Twitter @chapmatp.