Does the Lady Longhorns' 16-player roster sport the talent to replace the services of several outstanding athletes who graduated last spring?
Coach Linda Gibson -- who has headed the girls' program since it was founded three years ago -- has worked to uncover an answer to that query since preseason drills began Aug. 9.
Gibson says the team sports a small nucleus of veterans and several impressive newcomers, but it's too early in the campaign to make any predictions about team success.
"All I can say is I think we'll be OK. We lost a lot (to graduation). We'll just have to wait and see," Gibson said.
The two players the coach is finding toughest to replace are Davi-Anne Greiner and Elizabeth Gille. Both were award-winning members of the 1998 team who boasted outstanding soccer skills. But the team might miss their leadership more than their skills.
If there is a replacement in the current crew, it could be senior Sidney Swartwood, who's participated in the sport since her fourth-grade year.
"The only time I didn't (play soccer) was in middle school when I played softball," she said.
In practices as Swartwood runs conditioning laps, it's not unusual to spot her mouthing a lollipop -- "for energy," she said.
Even with her curious penchant for lollipops, Swartwood has proven to be a leader in varsity basketball, softball and soccer. Her presence could be the difference in wins and losses once the title chase begins to heat up in October.
Although she's only a sophomore, Jennifer Plumb also boasts plenty of playing experience, having earned a varsity letter last year when she was the starting goalie.
Plumb could return to her goalie position or perhaps play another position if freshman Trista Carlton -- also a goalie -- continues to develop as the coach expects.
"Trista looks very promising. She is a good athlete," Gibson said.
Another outstanding performer, Ashley Hollobaugh, is loaded with potential but has been sidelined since drills began by injuries to both ankles.
Hollobaugh was the team's leading scorer last year and her return to the lineup before the season tips off Sept. 1 in Eagar would be a big boost to the Lady Horn offense.
Other letter winners Gibson can call upon include Melissa Tucker, Leigh Ann Owens, April Cheek and Mindi Dorris.
Tucker, Owens and Cheek are penciled in at halfback positions, Dorris at fullback.
Sophomore Ashley Grubbs is also a promising player but has been slowed by what could turn out to be shin splints, she said.
Also battling for playing time are Jamie Peace, Laura Crabtree, Megan Branstetter, Melia Metikos, Sara Clifton, Thais Scorsin and Stacy Petry. Scorsin is an exchange student from Brazil who has played South American-style soccer.
Some of the athletes out for the team, Gibson said, have limited soccer playing experience and she's been spending a good deal of practice time introducing them to the nuances of the sport.
"Some don't really know the game and we have to work on a lot on technique and alignment," she said.
The coach has also spent practice hours installing and refining the same offensive set that the team used the past three seasons.
The 2-4-4 offense features two forwards, four halfbacks and four fullbacks.
"We won't look much different (than last year)," Gibson said.
The coach expects the highlight of the 1999 campaign to take place Oct. 29 and 30 in Camp Verde at a season-ending tournament designed to resemble the state championships.
"We can't really call it a state tournament, but that is what it basically is to the girls," Gibson said.
In past years, there has been no season-ending championship tournament for girls' teams. Coaches and athletic directors have worked to remedy that malady.
Gibson said the format of the tournament has not yet been finalized.
In addition to the tournament, Gibson expects games against rivals Blue Ridge (Oct. 13) and Camp Verde (Oct. 1 and Oct. 20) to serve as season highlights.
"We have a good rivalry going with Camp Verde and we always seem to split, 1-1, with Blue Ridge," she said.
The Lady Horns make their 1999 debut in the Rim country Sept. 8 against Show Low. Game time is 1 p.m. at Rumsey Park.