Experienced coaches such as Scott Anderson at Duluth Denfeld and Hermantown’s David Thompson are used to preaching to their boys soccer players a one-game-at-a-time philosophy.

More often than not, teenagers might block out constant droning from coaches of not looking past your next opponent.

But this fall, in the age of COVID-19, your next opponent may be your last.

“That’s where their heads are already — one game at a time — especially with the whole COVID situation,” Anderson said. “If somebody goes down, you are out for weeks and you forfeit those games if we don’t have a team ready. It really is a one-game-at-a-time year.”

The Minnesota State High School League voted earlier this month to allow soccer to return despite delaying football and volleyball until the spring.

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However, one positive coronavirus test could mess up everything.

Thompson tells his players before every practice to be honest about their health and to not risk spreading an illness if they aren’t feeling well.

“We are taking every practice with gratitude,” Thompson said. “If we get to that first game, we’re going to play that game with gratitude. So much is out of our control that I’m telling my guys … if we can do the best that we possibly can to preserve the health of our team, and if every team does that, we’re going to have a season. That’s focused our players into a mindfulness of gratitude rather than winning championships and beating so-and-so.

“Every single day that we get to play is a gift.”

Since section and state tournaments are not a given this fall, the only championship teams might be playing for is a conference title.

Among Lake Superior Conference foes, Denfeld and Hermantown had three intense matchups last season and their meeting will have a bearing on the conference crown.

The Hunters graduated eight seniors from a 12-7-1 team, but only three were starters so eight regulars return.

Included among them is senior midfielder-forward Keegan Chastey, last season’s News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year. Chastey had 24 goals and 14 assists in 2019 to give the Class A first-team All-State selection a school-record 49 career assists.

“His knowledge of the game and vision of the field are both really strong,” Anderson said. “If you watch him with or without the ball, he’s looking around the field and taking command of his team. As captain, that leadership role is a big strength. Any college would be lucky to get him.”

Chastey’s father, Barry, coaches the St. Scholastica men, but the playmaker has aspirations higher than the NCAA Division III level.

First, however, is that game-by-game approach that he hopes culminates in going a step farther than the Hunters’ overtime loss to St. Francis in last year’s Section 7A final.

“Looking around the area, we have one of the stronger, if not the strongest squad of players, talent-wise,” Chastey said. “The big thing for us is to get that winning attitude and mentality and keep that going throughout the year. Keep the thought in the back of our head that if there are playoffs, we’ll be ready for them.”

Joining Chastey in that endeavor are senior forwards Xavier Decker and Logan Colt, senior defender Owen Walczynski, senior goalkeeper Demetri Regas and sophomore midfielder Parker Chastey, Keegan’s younger brother.

“This year we have a lot more experience,” Keegan Chastey said. “We only had to replace two or three key players as opposed to the 10 that we replaced the year before. We’ll be better prepared for the bigger games this year.”

One of those will be against Hermantown, which went 14-4-1 but lost to Denfeld in the section semifinals last season after claiming the LSC title by beating the Hunters.

“It wasn’t easy to lose to them in the playoffs,” Thompson said. “That was a tremendous playoff game and a tremendous atmosphere.”

Thompson says he is impressed with his current group of players, which includes senior midfielders Evan Bjorlin (17 goals in 2019), Aydyn Dowd and Ryan Zastrow as well as senior forward Cole Antcliff and senior defender Trent Mershon.

The Hawks open play on their new artificial turf field Sept. 10 against Grand Rapids.

Elsewhere

At Duluth East, coach Corey Bachand is relieved to have a healthy midfield after last season’s difficulties in the center of the pitch. That led to the Greyhounds scoring a paltry 1.5 goals per game, though stellar goalkeeping helped the team go 11-6 in Section 7AA. Bachand expects juniors David Wallerstein and Kai Hoffman and senior Matthew Kreft to patrol the midfield, with senior Duncan Zentz up top. Speedy senior Masson Klassen moves from forward to defense and Eli Kramer takes over for graduated Anthony McHenry in goal.

Cloquet-Esko-Carlton returns 12 seniors this fall in a bid to contend in Section 7A. The Lumberjacks, 8-9-1 last season, are experienced at forward with Drake Schramm and Avery Liljgren, at midfield with Logan Dushkin, Spencer Rousseau, Paddy Genereau, Joe Baker and Jack Slater, and at defense with Michael Kayser, Tyler Issendorf, Nate Bong, Henry Slater and Grant Werhan.

Duluth Marshall is seeking to replace high-scoring Griff Pichetti (17-11—28) and Peyton Marshak and goalkeeper Charlie Eginton (1.41 goals-against average). The Hilltoppers are awaiting clarification if Japanese international Masaki Hirata is eligible to play. Senior Daniel Johnson anchors the defense, which will be key to team success. Senior midfielder Nick Ross and junior forward-midfielder Collin Larson are co-captains.

Grand Rapids went 9-7-2 in 2019, a year after reaching the section final. The Thunderhawks graduated only three seniors and have several key contributors returning. Senior midfielder Cam Fox (7-12—19) was the Iron Range player of the year, while junior midfielder Ian Salmala (5-7—12), senior midfielder Blake Henrichsen and senior Nic Langlois add depth. Senior goalie Chris Pederson split time in the net in 2019.

Despite a losing record last season, Proctor has high expectations thanks to seniors Henry Ringdahl, Reese Pinney and Grant Haugen at midfielder, Nolan Mehle at forward and Gabe Castleman on defense. Replacing Ben Harnell’s 20 goals will be priority No. 1.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions regarding medium-risk sports in Wisconsin, Superior doesn’t begin practicing until Sept. 7. The Spartans are led by junior Jakob Kidd, a 34-goal scorer a year ago who netted six in one game, and junior Ethan DeFoe (18 goals). The team must replace Alex Hanson (18-34—52 for career) at midfield.