LAUREL -- As high school soccer teams open the 2019 season across Montana this weekend, the schedule includes a Laurel team that came within an eyelash of back-to-back State A titles last October.
"You always replay it in your mind, replay it in your mind, and every year you're trying to fix what went wrong last year," Locomotives head girls coach Aloma Jess said.
The thing is, not much went wrong last year. The Locomotives won every regular-season match but one when they split with Billings Central. They later played the Rams dead even in last year's title match, scoreless regulation and overtime periods, before the Rams survived in a shootout.
"(We'll) use it as a learning experience, and I think we're definitely going to practice our PK kicks (penalty kicks) a little more," said forward Sammi Spitzer. "But it's going to push us and drive us to do better this year."
Spitzer is the lone senior on a team loaded with juniors, experience and depth with most starters returning.
"There's a pretty good starting area, but then the subs coming in, there's a long bench," said junior midfielder Morgan Maack. "Again, for the last couple years, every year since I've been here ... long bench. Someone gets hurt, someone replaces them. Someone gets tired, someone replaces them. It works perfectly."
They'll find out how perfectly Friday and Saturday with neutral-site matches against Frenchtown and Stevensville. In fact, Laurel plays twice as many matches this season against teams from western Montana (eight) as they do conference games (four). That's a result of Belgrade jumping to Class AA and leaving Livingston and Billings Central as Laurel's only conference rivals.
Whichever team is challenging the Locomotives will have to figure out how to crack another air-tight defense.
"We barely graduated any defenders," Maack said. "We have our whole back line, except for one girl, back."
"We even have a few that played midfield that now, maybe they'll be looking to play some defense," Jess said. "So, we're constantly just trying to develop them to play everywhere on that field."
Laurel has won two of Montana's past five State A girls championships. The Locomotives are scheduled to open the season Friday in a 4 p.m. match against Frenchtown then turn around for a 9 a.m. Saturday match against Stevensville.