The Leavenworth High School soccer team is nearing its season-opening game against Lansing High School.
And when soccer season starts for the Pioneers, that's when the challenge begins.
As a member of the Sunflower League, which head coach Ken Lott said has at least one or two state championship contenders every season, the Pioneers aren't expecting a winning season.
But after a 2-15 finish last year, senior midfielder and team captain Daniel Howard said the team has nowhere to go but up.
"Last year, our weaker players were so far below our varsity players that there was no middle ground at all," Howard said. "This year we closed the gap and it's pretty even throughout the team now."
Part of this, Lott said, comes from the team's deep freshman class.
With just six varsity returners from last year's squad, and 13 freshmen joining the ranks, he said a few of the younger players have already made names for themselves on the field.
Because of the strength of the freshman class, Lott and his three team captains agree — this is a good year to set foundation for the budding group of talent emerging among the underclassmen.
"It's definitely going to be building from that freshman class up," Lott said. "I've got three kids on the team this year that I've coached. ... They're used to my coaching, they're used to what I'm looking for so it should be an easy transition for them."
Though the team just began practice last Monday, the Pioneers have been participating in evening kick-arounds all summer.
The kick-arounds were essentially scrimmages open to anyone ready and willing to lace up their boots against the Pioneers. Senior centerback and team captain Eddie Rodriguez said the kick-arounds presented a good opportunity to develop and harness a faster speed of play. For the young players, that meant playing against older players in a game-like scenario, but for the upperclassmen, that meant bringing in some fresh talent.
"We'd play against adult and college players just to give us some better competition," Rodriguez said. "It (taught us) to play a lot quicker and to think ahead."
The varsity and junior varsity teams were set Monday, which allowed the teams to scrimmage one another and see how the younger guys match up.
Though it was just an in-practice scrimmage, Rodriguez said it showed a lot about where the program is heading in the future.
"They have a lot of drive to them," Rodriguez said. "They're determined to try and take one of our spots if they can. ... That's the thing I like about it too, because then they'll never give up."
Hunger is good, but hunger without results often produces frustration. Lott said his team ran into that problem last season, eventually leading to multiple players missing the Pioneers' regional game because of on-field issues with referees.
"We just didn't gel, we couldn't work together and we got frustrated a lot," Lott said. "Our tempers kind of controlled us."
This year, Lott said he's instructed his players to keep their mouths closed and their feet on the field, rather than missing games due to angered conversations with referees.
But if the Pioneers do have to cross that bridge, Rodriguez said the team's young roster will at least alleviate some of the loss.
"It adds a lot of depth to our team," Rodriguez said. "We can replace anybody at any position if someone were to get hurt."
The Pioneers begin play Sept. 3 at Lansing High School, and their home-opener is set for Sept. 8 against Bonner Springs High School.
With the season a week away, Lott said he is cautiously optimistic about the Pioneers' chances this season.
"They look like they're ready," he said. "Only one way to find out, we'll try to get out there and start playing."