In his heart, Jon Mertes never really left the Lake Norman boys soccer program.
But for a little longer than a month this summer, he had officially stepped down from the Wildcats team because of responsibilities to his family and job.
Then, in early July, Mertes decided he was the best man for the job after all.
"Being the coach of the Lake Norman boys and girls soccer team is a big responsibility and takes a lot of time and effort," said Mertes, who also is the principal owner of Ryan Medical LLC. "After the ways things worked out, I decided I still wanted to do both. Being around the guys again the last month is all it takes.
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"I am really excited about this year."
Although Mertes may be the most important returning component of the 2011 squad, he also has a talented, veteran team that includes 15 seniors.
Co-captain and all-region midfielder Jordan Chillson will be expected to do a little bit of everything from his central midfield position. He and classmate Ian Orr will organize the pace, tempo and distribution of the ball on a team with a wealth of elite speed.
Senior forward Joe Marshall (committed to Wofford College) and sophomore Austin Stevens look to become the same kinds of prolific goal scorers that the Wildcats have had in the past.
On defense, senior Ben Herron leads a talented back four from his central position. Senior goalkeeper Tim Coulter, a first-year starter, looks to fill the big shoes of all-state keeper Nick Hensley (now at UNC Charlotte).
All that talent has the Wildcats (16-3-4 in 2010, state quarterfinalist) looking again toward to the state championship.
"We have a lot of questions to answer on this team, like every year, in terms of coming together as a team," Mertes said. His teams are 112-13-7 over the past five years, winning state titles in 2006 and 2007. "But year in and year out, there is no question: We talk about a state championship. That is our expectation, and that is definitely a good thing."
Hough High School will be right on the Wildcats' heels after going to the 4A state semifinals in 2010, its first year as a team.
The Huskies (12-13 last year), who were inconsistent in the regular season, hope their magical playoff run - in which they upset four teams, including Lake Norman - is a sign of things to come.
Coach David Smith's team has the talent to win. All-region senior forwards Nathaniel Goodwin and Santiago Pantino lead a potent offense.
Best of the rest
North Mecklenburg, Hopewell and Mooresville all hope to challenge for the I-Meck Conference title, after all three teams lost a lot of experience to graduation.
North's Vikings won the I-Meck regular-season title last year, but the program's depth has been diluted by the opening of Hough High. Coach Paul Kikta and company will depend on their defense early on; it's led by all-region senior goalkeeper Jaron Bradley.
Hopewell and coach Robb Bolar also lost a lot of offensive firepower and will look to senior keeper Ryan Santee for his playmaking ability and leadership.
Mooresville needs talented senior Ty Haddock to step up and be the leader of a Blue Devils team that should be much improved in the win column in 2011.
On the rise
East Lincoln should challenge for the Southern Piedmont conference title and beyond again this season.
The Mustangs definitely have the talent to do so. All-state defender Justin Williams returns to lead a stingy defense, and all-region forward Rolando Miranda is back to score early and often.
Lake Norman Charter also enters the Southern Piedmont for the first time this season and expects to be a factor from day one.
Davidson Day is also a team on the rise as new coach Doug London takes over the program. London will look to all-state midfielder Jax Goyette as the Patriots try for a South Piedmont Athletic Association crown.