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Season of change for North soccer programs

File Photo North Gwinnett's Lauren Harriman (6) dribbles the ball during the Class AAAAA state championship game last year against Harrison.

File Photo North Gwinnett's Lauren Harriman (6) dribbles the ball during the Class AAAAA state championship game last year against Harrison.

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File Photo North Gwinnett's Taylor Burns (17) slides for the ball against Harrison during last year's Class AAAAA state championship game.

The expectations are still high this season for the North Gwinnett soccer program, even though graduation losses and a coaching change have brought a few changes.

Longtime girls coach Mark Karen, who also was the Bulldogs' athletic director, stepped down for a job in Hilton Head (S.C.) in the offseason, and was replaced by Erik Crawford, a longtime coach in the North program. Crawford had been an assistant for both the boys and girls teams, but also was the North boys' head coach in the past, including a 2007 season when he was named the Gwinnett County coach of the year after his team won the region title.

He inherits a girls team that lost some of its core players, including 2011 Daily Post player of the year Abby Groth, to graduation. He also takes over a team that's on an amazing run, going 71-14 the past four seasons with a 2010 state title and a 2011 state runner-up finish.

"We're pretty young," said Crawford, a Shiloh grad who is in his ninth season at North. "But hopefully we'll be healthy earlier than we were last year. (Lauren) Harriman was hurt early in the year last year. We've got some youth on this team and we're hoping to get some good work from that youth this season."

The boys team also had success last season in former assistant Mike Wentzler's first season as head coach. The Bulldogs finished 12-8 and returned to the state playoffs out of tough Region 7-AAAAA.

Wentzler has just four returning starters (and only one senior starter) for his second year as head coach. But many of his younger players got experience in 2011.

"For a young team, we have a good number of players with varsity experience," Wentzler said. "Our defense should be fairly solid, but our main strength is in the midfield."

Of those North teams, the girls squad enters with the highest expectations based on its recent success. It's ranked third in Class AAAAA, despite losing Groth, fellow defender Krissy Tamburo, center midfielders Abbi Edwards and Maggie Grayson and goalkeeper Michelle DeMaris to graduation off a team that went 19-4 before falling 1-0 to unbeaten Harrison in the state finals.

Harriman, a speedy player who is a threat at forward or in the midfield, is among the North girls' top returning players. The Georgia State signee had five goals and an assist in four playoff games (missing one postseason game with an injury) as a junior, finishing with 13 goals and seven assists.

The Bulldogs' top two scorers also are back in Taylor Burns (23 goals, 13 assists last season) and Caroline Gualdoni (19 goals, 15 assists), but shoring up a few holes in the defense will be important. Mackenzie Loula figures to be the defensive leader, while Jessica Eberhardt and Brooke Bortles also bring plenty of playoff experience.

The North boys' most experienced position is in the midfield, where senior Matthew Melton (an Appalachian State signee) is a returning starter along with juniors Christian Zapata and Brian Norton. Daniel Arndt is the team's other returning starter as a defender.

Wentzler, a former standout goalkeeper at Duluth, also is expecting big contributions from midfielder Nico Polanco and defenders James Lee and Thomas Perry, all juniors.

Both the North teams will be tested early in the season, beginning Monday when they face Lambert in a 6 p.m. girls and 7:45 p.m. boys doubleheader. Lambert's boys and girls teams are both ranked No. 3 in Class AAAA in the state preseason poll.