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The 2016 Metro Atlanta college soccer preview: Georgia, Kennesaw State, Mercer and Georgia State

What can we expect from the region’s four Division 1 soccer schools?

NCAA Womens Soccer: College Cup-Championship Duke vs Penn State Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

With the college soccer season upon us, it’s time to take a look at what to expect on the pitch from the local programs. If you’re new to the game, the area has four Division 1 soccer programs: Georgia, Kennesaw State, Mercer, and Georgia State. Two of those - Georgia and Kennesaw State only field women’s teams. We’ll keep an eye on these programs and also keep you up to date on what’s happening with the lower division programs throughout the course of the season. But for now, we zero in on the D1 schools and let you know what to expect.

Georgia

Last year: 5-12-1 (4-7-1 SEC)

Who’s gone: Leading scorer Bella Hartley; forwards Cara Smith and Andie Fontanetta, defender and captain Emma Sonnett, and reserve forward Mackin D’Amico.

Who’s back: Everyone else, including leading scorer Marion Crowder (four goals, eight points), Mariel Guttierez (two goals, seven points), Sydney Shultis (two goals, five points), and a corps of defenders including Summer Burnett, Maya Cherry, Caroline Waters, Bria Washington, along with keeper Louise Hogrell.

The Georgia defense did a solid job keeping the ball out of the net (1.72 goals allowed per game), but it was scoring - or lack of it - that did the Dawgs in. Georgia scored only 16 goals in 18 games all season, which works out to a microscopic .088 goals per game. Needless to say, they’ll need to lean on Crowder, Guttierez and Shultis for offense.

Kennesaw State

Last year: 6-10-3 (3-3-1 Atlantic Sun)

Who’s gone: Midfielders Hannah Churchill (started 18 games in 2015) and Khatra Mahdi (appeared in all 19 games, starting 11); defenders Jackie Gray (16 games, 10 starts) and Megan Tymchuk (18 games, 11 starts). Also gone is coach Rob King, the only coach in program history. He resigned after 14 years at Kennesaw State and leading the Owls to a Division II National Championship and three conference titles.

Who’s back: Brittney Reed, lost to a knee injury three games in last year, returns along with forwards Cassidy Kemp, Kim Fincher and Maggie Gaughan; and key defenders Abby Roth and Ida Hepsoe. In all, eight players who appeared in at least 16 games - and six players who started all 19 games - return.

The Owls took a big loss when Reed went down, but still managed a .500 record in A-Sun play and were second in the league in goals scored (37). They did give up 37, but it’s a little deceiving since eleven of those were allowed to Samford and Top 20 team South Carolina - they went on to concede just eleven times in their final nine games. A strong core of veteran defenders, led by Roth, Hepsoe and goalkeeper Ashley Zambetti, along with a healthy Reed leading the offense and some age at midfield, could help the Owls challenge for the top of the A-Sun table. New coach Benji Watson gets started Friday night on the road at Chattanooga.

Georgia State (men)

Last year: 9-8-1 (4-1-0 Sun Belt)

Who’s gone: Leading scorer Eddie Wilding; starters Conor Acheson, Cory Plasker, Greyson Waldorff, and Nomis Cisic; substitute Andy Anglade

Who’s back: Eight of their top nine scorers, including junior Lebanese forward Jad Elkhalil and senior midfielder Casey Shultis. Rashid Alarape trained with the Nigerian Olympic team this summer while they were in Atlanta.

The Panthers advanced to the Sun Belt championship game last year, where they lost to Hartwick 3-0. Can they make it back? They’ll have to do so without Wilding and a core of starters (including goalkeeper Waldorff) that helped them go 4-1 in league play. But, with basically everyone else returning, along with players like Elkhalil, Shultis and Burmeister to anchor the offense, and a good group of freshmen being added to the mix, they should hold their own.

Georgia State (women)

Last year: 11-6-4 (4-4-1 Sun Belt)

Who’s gone: Head coach Derek Leader left in February to become the head coach at Grand Canyon University. Personnel wise, Ashley Nagy (seven goals, 16 points); midfielder Lauren Harriman; defenders Jenna Moore and Anna Hilpertshauer; goalkeeper Christa Fox

Who’s back: Goalkeeper Brie Haynes returns from injury, defensive starters and leaders Amanda Bruemmer and Kenzie Winters. Also, leading scorer Suzanne Arafa (nine goals, 23 points); rising sophomore Caitlin Ray (seven goals, 16 points); midfielders Monique Hundley; forward Taina Anglade

New head coach Ed Joyce takes the reins at Panthersville for the Georgia State women. He was previously an assistant for the Georgia State men and at Campbell for the last two seasons. He’ll have nine newcomers to count on this season.

The Panthers tied their last preseason game with freshman Erin Rhodes scoring the Panthers’ goal in a 1-1 draw with Austin Peay. Junior Skylar Olson scored the winning goal in their first preseason game, a 1-0 win over Lipscomb in Nashville.

The Panthers will have to navigate 2016 without the stalwarts of their defense (Fox, Hilpertshauer and Moore) and second leading scorer Ashley Nagy. However, the duo of Arafa and Ray, along with Haynes, Bruemmer and Winters, hope to make another run to the Sun Belt championship game (where they lost to South Alabama 4-0 last year).

Mercer (men)

Last year: 11-6-3 (5-3-2 SoCon)

Who’s gone: Midfielders Drew Schall, Alexander Andersson and Jourdan Gooden, defenders Mark Riggins and Carson Brooks

Who’s back: Leading scorer Jordan Duru (seven goals and 21 points); Will Bagrou (14 points); Kobe Perez (nine points); durable defender Airrion Blackstock (played every minute last season); backfield mates Ian Antley and Trenton Whitely; keeper Jeremy Booth (also played every minute last season); midfielder Nickolas Tripodi

Mercer will feature nine freshmen this season. Despite a large incoming class, the Bears have some strong experience in some key spots. Duru, Bagrou and Perez should lead the offense once more, while Antley, Booth, Blackstock, and Whitely lead a defense that allowed just 21 goals all season in 2015. Mercer’s three conference losses came either in overtime (twice) or via a late goal (not counting a loss in penalties in the SoCon semis), but with the calendar having turned, this is a team that could legitimately challenge for the top of the league table.

Mercer (women)

Last year: 9-8-4 (5-3-1 SoCon)

Who’s gone: Midfielder Sarah Daane, forward Sydney Brogden, goalkeeper Maddie Kropp

Who’s back: Basically everyone else: leading scorer Katelyn Dimopoulos (seven goals), Maddie Clark (four goals) and five of last year’s six top scorers; much of last year’s defense and midfield.

The Bears are blessed in the fact that they didn’t lose too many key contributors from last year’s squad that was tied for second in the SoCon for goals allowed. However, they lagged offensively at times (scoring a goal or less in fourteen matches and getting shut out in seven games). Even with Cristina Mursuli taking the reins from the graduated Kropp, another year to grow for Dimopoulos, Clark and the rest of the go-to players in offense has hopefully done Mercer good - and with something to prove after being picked to finish fourth in conference play, they’ll be aiming for their second NCAA appearance in three years.