The Lewis Central Titans are making their seventh state soccer appearance and are the three-time defending Class 2-A champions. Front row from left are Amara Orth, Hope Jensen, Hannah Estrada, Jayden Cross, Haley Bach, Rachel Cushing, Madison Albers and Claire Gilman. Second row from left are Caitlyn Hanafan, Hannah Lucy, Malena Beezley, Taylor Gregory, Callie Stephens and Callie Williams. Top row from left are coach Chris Von Mende, Emily Hoppe, Khia Hilton, Hadley Hill, Gracie Bernard, Chloe Schlines, Johnna Miller, Mikayla McCart, Callie Gillett, Jayden Cavanaugh, Natalie Smith and assistant coach Sydnie Dennis.

For most Iowa high school girls soccer programs, it would have been impossible to recover.

When future Division I players Grace Guidry (Iowa State) and Bella Smith (Drake) decided not to join their high school team at Lewis Central for their junior seasons in order to pursue other opportunities, it dealt a significant blow to the Titans’ chances of returning to state.

When L.C. lost three of four during one midseason stretch, many likely counted out the three-time defending Class 2-A state champions.

But here they are again. The seventh-rated, seventh-seeded Titans (14-4) will meet second-rated, second-seeded Waverly-Shell Rock (15-1) in a 2 p.m. Class 2-A state quarterfinal Thursday at the Cownie Soccer Park in Des Moines. L.C. beat Waverly 1-0 in last year’s 2-A final.

Lewis Central coach Chris Von Mende, who said he gave the two girls his support, believed it was important for the program to turn the page quickly when they learned of their decisions.

“When we started the season, started training, we were just like, ‘We’re going to worry about the players we have and how to get them ready to take on their roles,’’’ he said. “We didn’t want to dwell on it too much.’’

The Titans showed their depth of talent by finding their stride at the ideal time. Grand View recruit Jayden Cross, a junior, assumed the role of scoring leader and has 20 goals to date, ranking fifth among 2-A qualifiers. Junior Gracie Bernard, another Grand View recruit, has taken over nicely at Smith’s former left back post.

In addition to Cross, six other starters return from last year: seniors Chloe Schlines and Mikayla McCart, and juniors Rachel Cushing, Hadley Hill, Malena Beezley and Caitlyn Hanafan.

“Our girls are confident that we’re going to give any team we play a really tough time,’’ Von Mende said.

The Titans lost one-goal decisions at midseason to Sioux City Heelan, Abraham Lincoln and Pella, all state qualifiers. Von Mende said he always tries to play the best competition possible.

“That’s made us better,’’ he said. “I’d rather have tough games that you might lose some, and we learn from it. Generally, we move on and fix the things we had trouble with.’’

The Go-Hawks also return seven starters from last year’s finalist, led by sophomore Kenzie Roling, who ranks second in the 2-A field with 36 goals and has committed to Iowa.

L.C. successfully contained her in last year’s final, but “I’m thinking she’s another year older, another year wiser and stronger,’’ Von Mende said.

They have two other future D-I players in senior Kennedy Rieken (Northern Iowa) and sophomore Siri Ott (Iowa State).

“We’re going to have to do everything we can and play some really good soccer to get a chance to beat them,’’ Von Mende said.

Based on the ratings and seedings, along with L.C.’s departures, few, if any, are expecting the Titans to become the fourth team in state history to win four straight championships. That’s just fine with the Titan skipper.

“It’s one of those times where we’re going to be the ones that have to come up the ladder and knock off a Waverly, or other teams, too,’’ Von Mende said. “They’re excited to go. We’re excited as a staff to go. The most important part of the season is getting to state and then playing your best. That’s kind of what we’ve tried to do the last three years.’’

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