1. Checking in with the champs

Rekindling the fire inside players won’t be a challenge for Anoka boys’ soccer coach Pete Hayes. His Tornadoes were the only team of the four to win a state championship last fall that was not picked No. 1 in the recent coaches’ association preseason poll. St. Cloud Apollo got the nod in the boys’ Class 1A poll, as did Eagan (2A) and Orono (1A) on the girls’ side.

Not that Hayes will complain. Anoka thrived in the underdog role last season, going from sixth in the Northwest Suburban Conference to the program’s second state championship in eight seasons. Captains Blake Neumann, Connor Schaaf and Michael Talbot will lead the Tornadoes’ repeat charge.

Among girls’ teams, Eagan is getting plenty of respect after capping an unbeaten season with the first title in program history. All-state attackers Taylor Kenealy and Jade King return to make life tough on opposing defenses.

And let’s not forget Class 2A boys’ teams East Ridge, Maple Grove and Minnetonka and Class 1A girls’ team Minneapolis Washburn. All four took unbeaten records into the state tournament last year and seek redemption.

2. Destination: Granite City

For the second and final time, the state tournament’s semifinals, third-place and championship matches will be played at St. Cloud State’s Husky Stadium. Previously, the event had been held at the Metrodome. But with the Metrodome leveled for construction of the Vikings stadium, the state finals of soccer and football won’t return to that location until 2016. St. Cloud’s open-air stadium means the season will finish in the elements, where the regular season is usually played. The 2014 tournament drew about 3,000 fewer fans than the 2013 tournament at the Metrodome.

3. Player cupboard is less bare

Keeping talented girls’ soccer players with their high school teams got easier this fall. The Minnesota Thunder Academy club team, part of the Elite Clubs National League, starts on Oct. 25. Players on high school teams making deep state tournaments runs would miss just one club game. Danny Storlien, MTA girls’ team director and coach of the Bloomington Jefferson boys’ varsity program, estimated that fewer than a dozen academy-caliber girls’ players are not playing high school soccer this fall. The Minnesota State High School League does not allow soccer players to play high school and club soccer simultaneously.

Two years ago, 54 girls chose club soccer over their high school teams. Last year the ECNL season started later to give more girls the option of staying with their school teams.

The exodus continues on the boys’ side, with one notable exception. Minnetonka senior forward Suad Suljic, who scored 18 goals and added 14 assists last fall, did not leave. Suljic won Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year and Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year honors. With Suljic staying, the Skippers earned the No. 1 spot in the coaches’ preseason poll.

Other programs weren’t so fortunate. Rob Zahl, MTA boys’ team director, estimated 50 players didn’t go out for their high school teams. About 60 players have picked club soccer over high school in each of the past three seasons.