Just one day before the fall season began, Stillwater's new captains needed their soccer fix.

"We do this a lot -- it gets pretty heated," said Eli Bjerk, in the middle of beating Charlie Adams at a FIFA video game. "We're ready to go."

Bjerk and Adams represent only part of a returning core group from last year's third-place team in the Class 2A state tournament. The Ponies finished 19-4-1, picking up their seventh Suburban East Conference title in the past decade. With three experienced captains and their leading scorer back in the fold, 31-year coach Phil Johnson is in the holiday spirit.

"It's like Christmas every year. What have they done, who has developed their skills? It's an opening that every coach looks forward to," Johnson said.

As has historically been the case in Stillwater, this is a tight-knit group built together through years in the youth soccer pipeline. Many of them have played together since the age of 9.

"Any group that has played together for a long period of time and has benefited by a close association -- whether it's volleyball or swimming or whatever it is -- you know that adolescents thrive on that," Johnson said.

That's Stillwater soccer. This summer, five Ponies played on the St. Croix Rossoneri club team, which won the Surf Cup in San Diego. After giving up an early goal in the first game, it posted five consecutive shutouts.

Johnson watched a talented bunch turn the corner midway through last season before putting together a state run. He will have plenty of talent to work with again this fall.

Midfielders Bjerk and Adams are both small in stature but beaming with skill and soccer sense. Adams is a strong table-setter who handles and distributes the ball well. A 2A first-team all-state selection, he also brings tenacious defense at a critical position.

"Charlie's a fighter. People don't expect him -- he's a little guy -- but he throws in the hardest tackles and he's got incredible skill on the ball and he's been an amazing player to play with since I was a little kid," said Bjerk, who had six goals and eight assists during the season and was selected to the all-state tournament team.

Co-captain Ben Johnson came on as a central defender during his freshman campaign, but he has since developed more tools, strength and versatility.

"Ben is an animal. He can run forever and he's always in the best shape," Bjerk said. "You can put him anywhere on the field and he'll find a way to get the job done no matter what."

Patrick Roth led the Ponies last season with 11 goals and four assists. Now a junior, as he grows faster and stronger, so too will Stillwater's attack.

With Park of Cottage Grove, Woodbury, Cretin-Derham Hall and a rising East Ridge program, winning the Suburban East will have to be earned. Stillwater might have the X-factor to get it done.

"You can't manufacture experience," Johnson said. "They had a state tournament experience last year, and there's a large group of guys coming back. Let's see what we can do to repeat that process."