WINFIELD — Finally, after years of heartbreaking postseason shortcomings, Winfield finally broke through in 2018, winning its first boys soccer state championship.
So, as the 2019 season opens, it's a case of "now what?" for the Generals.
Off the top, like most teams in the state, the Generals have their own holes to fill, losing five senior starters from last year's history-making squad. A scrimmage against a senior-laden George Washington team on Tuesday exposed those holes even more and ninth-year coach Mike Foster said it's very much a work in progress as of now.
"GW flat out put it on us - they wore us out," Foster said. "We've got a lot of bugs to work out. Our work rate on our wings is just not what it was last year. Jackson Zulauf has had two good (scrimmage) games, but he's a senior and he's used to that position. We've got some shifting around to do."
"We learned that we definitely have a long way to go, especially from last year," Zulauf added. "Honestly, I'm not surprised. It's always going to be a process."
The Generals lost four All-State players from last year with first-teamers Evan McCray (midfield) and Philip Englund (defender) and second-teamers Coen Preston (midfield) and Ryan Shrewsbury (midfield/forward) graduating. Gone with them are 66 goals and 63 assists worth of production, and those numbers don't include the state tournament.
"Evan was special and so was Philip Englund and Coen was awfully good himself," Foster said. "It was hard when it came to All-State nominations with those five guys because they all deserved it."
The Generals have been one of the most prolific offenses in the state under Foster. To continue that, Zulauf, junior Braxton Vanscoy and others will have to step up in the attack. Vanscoy is the team's leading returning scorer after registering 20 goals a year ago with Zulauf adding six goals and 11 assists.
"Honestly I think I just run with it - lean on me and I'll take the pressure," Zulauf said. "We've got other people too. Noah Moss coming in who's a senior and we've got subs like Austin Thornton and a good midfield that is getting their stuff together and they're going to help out."
Junior Tarek Jarrouj is the lone returner in the midfield with Caleb Hawks moving out of the backfield to help out as well. A third midfielder is one of the positions still up in the air.
As good as Winfield has been offensively, it's overshadowed what has also been a great defensive unit, especially last year as the team recorded 14 shutouts.
Goalkeeper Nathan Lanham is back for his senior season and should direct a unit that could be leaned upon heavily until the midfield settles in and sets up the team's strikers. Senior Richard Smith is entering his third season as a defensive starter and fellow senior Jacob Verno is back for his second.
Foster also said sophomore Seth Eads and senior Will Whaley will help fill out the defensive backfield with junior Mikey Daly getting big minutes off the bench.
Though there are a lot of moving parts, the Generals figure to be talented and athletic. But while the team has the players to adjust to new roles physically, Winfield is also preparing for a different season mentally.
For so long, the Generals were the hunter, but now as a defending champion they'll be a target for nearly every team they play.
"What I basically told them was that winning a state championship was a great accomplishment and everybody on the team had a part of that, but that was last year," Foster said. "That means nothing this year. Yes, we have a target on our back for everyone else, but as far as we're concerned, it means nothing. It's a new year. We've got a lot to prove and they've got a lot of work to do."
Zulauf, one of nine seniors listed on the Generals' roster, doesn't anticipate it feeling much different once play begins. And he and his teammates seem confident as their title defense gets underway.
"We've always kind of been prepared to be the team that was getting gunned down," Zulauf said. "Before we won states even, we've always had good attacking teams and always been a team people were coming after. Winning states was mind blowing, one of the highlights of my life, but we're just going to prepare like it's any other season.
"We're definitely a confident group. We believe."