LAUREL - The last time Laurel's soccer girls played on their home field? Halloween, 10 months ago, repeating as State A champions in a wild come-from-behind 3-2 overtime win over Whitefish.
When they take the same field Friday at 6 p.m. against Corvallis, they'll be working to replace eight graduated seniors with a new head coach.
"The great part about this season is that we have 14 games before playoffs start," Tom Maack told MTN Sports. "We have a long time -- two good months -- where we can see what happens, where players belong out on the field and experiment."
Maack, who took his first varsity job last year with Laurel's boys, steps in for Aloma Jess, who had coached since 1999 and guided Laurel to seven straight state championship matches, winning three of the last four.
"Tom is probably one of the only coaches that could have made this team come together," said senior midfielder Chloe Bauman. "Skill level from the first practice until now has improved dramatically."
Anna Cole has been the starting keeper on these back-to-back title teams, but she loses three starting defenders on a defense that only allowed seven goals last season.
"I think I'm going to have to do my job a lot more, but I think our defense is still going to be strong," Cole said.
Senior Grace Wagner is the lone returning starter at defender. She'll anchor the defense and feels Laurel's biggest strength is, "Honestly, end of the day, hard work. I can go out here and I can go like this (demonstrating lazy footwork), but if I don't pick up my game and push myself, you're never going to get better."
"The work level is even higher than it was last year," Baumann said. "We had a lot more skilled players last year, but this year the work ethic has gone up a ton."
Offensively, Laurel will showcase one of Montana's biggest scoring threats in junior Mya Maack, who's tallied 53 career goals.
Laurel's boys are adjusting to their third head coach in three seasons. But it shouldn't be a giant adjustment under Drew Davis. He's been a Locomotives assistant for the last six years.
"Over time, you just sort of get vested and I'm vested," Davis told MTN Sports before a recent practice.
Two years ago, the Locomotives played in their first ever title match -- a 4-0 loss to Whitefish, winners of three straight Class A boys titles -- but then graduated 10 starting seniors.
Last year, as one can imagine, was a full rebuild mode. Not surprisingly, starting five to six freshmen, Laurel's guys didn't win a match.
"We scored one goal. It made for a long, difficult season, but there was a lot of learning," Davis recalled. "Now I've got a group of sophomores who, arguably, have a lot of varsity experience."
Davis also has a luxury his team didn't a year ago.
"I've got an opportunity to field a starting team that doesn't have to have any freshman if I don't want it to, so that's exciting."
Kadin LaCasse is one of the team's few seniors.
"Last year was our rebuilding year," the midfielder said. "We've got a lot of players that aren't freshmen coming in with no varsity experience. So, we have that varsity experience on our side this year."
Fellow senior midfielder Kyle DeSmet agrees.
"I think it's going to be better than last year,"he said. "All our players are older and have more experience."
Like in football, soccer teams field 11 players at a time. But Laurel only has about 15 total, and is without the experience of senior goalkeeper Noah Berg, who'll miss his final year while recovering from a knee injury suffered last winter on the ski slopes.
"He's working with goal keepers, wants to be part of the team and we're excited to have him," Davis said. "He's a great young man."
As for players navigating their third head coach in three seasons, "Every year we kind of develop a different strategy and have to re-learn a new thing," DeSmet said. "But, I think it's kind of nice to learn all the new strategies."