By Steve Millar

Surrounded by young and inexperienced teammates, Manteno junior midfielder Ryan Conway knows she has to step it up this season.

“I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself,” Conway said. “I know this season I have to play through everything, keep a good attitude and help my teammates out. Now that I have a lot of experience at Manteno and playing club (for the Southland Strikers), I’m really comfortable and confident.”

The Panthers have holes to fill after graduating 13 seniors from the 2017 team that finished 12-10. Those girls also were a large part of a team that went 16-8-1 and advanced to a Class 1A sectional championship game in 2016.

“It’s almost a whole new team this year,” said Manteno coach Justin Emerson, who is entering his third season as head coach. “We’re definitely rebuilding, and we know we’re going to take some lumps. We just want to stay positive and keep getting better as the season goes on.”

Conway, fellow junior midfielder Alyse Crowe and senior defender Kira Grisham will be counted on to lead the reload.

“We’re really young, but we’re all supportive of each other,” Crowe said. “Everyone is really positive.

“As one of the returning players, I just want to help the new girls understand how we want to play and what Manteno soccer is all about.”

Over the last decade, Manteno soccer has been all about winning.

Since 2009, the Panthers have won a pair of Class 1A state titles – in 2009 and 2014 – while finishing as a state runner-up twice. They’ve won six sectional titles in that span.

“Girls see the success we’ve had over the last 10 years or so, and they definitely want it to keep going,” said Emerson, whose brother Jake started the winning tradition as head coach from 2008-2012. He eventually turned the reigns over to Kevin Mikuce (2013-15), one of the few IHSA stars to advance to the state finals as a coach and player. 

“The (new players) are going to work to continue the tradition,” Emerson continued. “Even if this is a season where we’ll probably struggle to get to 10 wins, the goal is to get better for the future.”

With that in mind, Emerson plans to play up to six freshmen. Midfielder Kira Grisham, who also plays club for the Southland Strikers, is one of the most promising freshmen.

“They’re going to play a lot,” Emerson said. “We want to get them ready, get better by the end of the year and carry that over to next year.”

Despite their youth, the Panthers aren’t shying away from tough competition. They have several Class 3A schools on their schedule and will again compete in the PepsiCo Showdown.

“We love playing tough tournaments and taking on good competition,” Conway said. “Playing big schools like that just makes us better and more prepared for when we play small schools in the playoffs.”

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