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MARION — Marco de Leon pauses for a second when asked how his first season as the head girls’ soccer coach at Linn-Mar went.
“It was a bit challenging,” de Leon said. “Obviously you want to coach, but there’s a lot more to it. I knew what I was getting myself into, but, it’s just balancing everything.”
The Lions went 11-8 last year and as de Leon hinted at, there certainly was some pain. Of those eight losses, none were by more than two goals — half were by just one, including a 3-2 loss in the opening round of regional competition. Five games even went to overtime.
Not the easiest way to start a career.
“This time around I know what to expect a little more,” de Leon said. “I feel like I learned a lot and I definitely have some experiences to draw on now.”
In taking over a winning and improved program, there’s always pressure to continue to pile up victories. After former head coach Steve Dickinson announced his retirement in 2015, de Leon immediately was thought of for the job. He had spent years under Dickinson and was a big part of the Lions’ emergence as a perennially good girls’ soccer program.
Linn-Mar has made the state tournament three times since 2010 and de Leon was on the coaching staff of each of those teams.
But the Lions have yet to reach a state title game — or leave the first round, actually — which seems to weigh heavily on de Leon’s mind.
“That’s where our goal is set at right now,” de Leon said. “Once you win that first one, it’s just a matter of winning two more.”
De Leon feels that his seniors are motivated to break through and also seems confident they have the talent to do it. The Lions return several crucial pieces, including senior keeper Allie Strottman, who allowed just 12 goals all of last season and is signed to play at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee next year.
They also get back forward Jaclyn Simons, who scored 11 goals — including five game-winners — last year. There also seems to be some confidence Linn-Mar can get some major contributions from its freshmen, which would add even more options to De Leon’s arsenal.
He’ll need them. The Mississippi Valley Conference is tough and life in the Valley half of the conference is even more difficult still. Iowa City West, the state runner-up, and Cedar Rapids Kennedy, a state semifinalist, were the only two teams to finish ahead of the Lions in the Valley division.
While Kennedy did lose a significant chunk, there’s belief it will be able to bring back enough to contend once again. Iowa City West very well may end up in the state title game again, bringing back two future Division-I players in Regan Steigleder (Northwestern) and Emma Cooper (Michigan).
Iowa City High also should be good again, as should Dubuque Hempstead.
It’s a stacked conference and a stacked house in general at the 3A level in Iowa.
“Several program will have new faces,” City High head coach Michael Prunty said. “It will be another competitive year.”
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