Before any laps were run, balls were kicked or strategies were discussed, the Liberty Lions soccer team had to deal with tragedy.
Late this summer, one of their own -- Anthony Omelio -- was killed in an automobile accident. Coping wasn't easy.
"The first thing we did was sit down and talk about honoring the memory of our fallen player," said Liberty coach Lee Kestler.
"We all shared in that loss and talked about what we could do. We've dedicated this season in his memory and will wear black bands on our sleeves. He was a nice kid and hard worker, I asked these lads to adopt his work ethics."
The Lions are trying to regain their usual top form after finishing with a 6-5-1 mark a year ago and not winning the county title for the first time in three years. Consolation was an impressive 3-1 upset win over top-seeded Middletown in the opening round of the region playoffs. Seeded fourth, the Lions then lost a hard-fought 1-0 decision to eventual state co-champ Glenelg.
A strong group of veterans hopes to put them back in front as they've grown accustomed to in recent years.
Senior Travis Foote, a four-year varsity player and team captain, gets it all started for the Lions at his sweeper position. He'll be in front of senior goalie Josh Gursky, who replaces the graduated Greg Schad.
"He's been working real hard with Jimmy Regiel, our volunteer goalie coach, and the individual attention has made a lot of difference," Kestler said.
Junior Geoff Gursky also returns at one fullback position with senior Eddie Morrell and junior stopper Jeff Bachman, Brad Hopwood and Steve James all looking for playing time.
"The competition has been very healthy and the players understand they have to work their way into things, which is making them work that much harder," said Kestler.
There's no better place to have depth than at the midfield position and the Lions have plenty of it.
Seniors Kevin Henderson, Jason Dunbar, Steve Reigel and Corey Ziegenfuss all return and there's experienced players behind them in fellow seniors Mike Knoerlein and Sam DeLaurence.
"Our biggest asset outside of Travis and Geoff in back is at midfield," Kestler said.
"We have quality starters and then we can substitute and not a lot of things change."
Juniors Jeff Vail, Tony Beraducci and Archbishop Curley transfer Eric Eldridge also will see time at midfield.
Much of the problem last season was scoring and Kestler hopes senior strikers Mike Sheehan and Eric Tupis can be the answer. Senior Tom Partenope and juniors Mark Ozgard and Kris Schenkelberg also will run up front. Expect a lot of goals to come from the midfield as well.
"With the attitude of the players right now, I think we can improve on that 6-5-1 record of a year ago," Kestler said.
"The games we didn't play to our capabilities were the ones that hurt us, so we're working hard on playing at a consistent level."