SOUTH ORANGE/MAPLEWOOD, NJ -- How quickly the Columbia High School boys soccer team is able to adapt to a new set of starters in the back will be a key factor in how competitive the Cougars can be in 2019.

Columbia opens its season at Nutley on Wednesday, Sept. 4 with a rebuilt defensive unit. Three senior backs and its starting goalie in 2018 all graduated, so head coach Josh Russotto is hoping the players he employs in those spots this year can help solidify the defense as the season goes along.

"The team has lost some multi-year varsity starters from last year's team, particularly in the defense," Russotto said, "so there's a lot of transitioning going on and new relationships that need to be developed amongst the players."

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Although they're still young themselves, two midfielders Russotto hopes will provide a spark for the team are junior Ben Christmann and sophomore Charlie Herley. The coach calls the duo "exciting, young talented midfielders." They have varsity experience, as do defensive reserves-turned-starters Dan Teitalbaum (senior) and Cameron Ripley (junior) and senior goalie Max Crosby.

While Christmann and Herley have already shown what they are capable of in the middle of the field, juniors James Griffis and Robbie Boyd also hope to have an impact at midfield. Junior Juff Exilus is expected to see action both up front, at wing, and in midfield. Sophomore Mike D'Elletto will see action in goal.

"We've got a talented group of young players that are hungry for their opportunity to prove what they can do during league play, in the Essex County Tournament and the state tournament," Russotto said.

Following the road opener at Nutley, Columbia will be at home for a 7 p.m. game at Underhill Field against Verona on Friday, Sept. 6. Another date to circle on the Columbia soccer calendar: Friday, Oct. 25, when Columbia's 1979 NJSIAA State Championship Team will be honored on the  40th anniversary of its title. An acknowledgment will be given to those who played in that season at halftime of the regularly schedule 7 p.m. game against Union at Underhill Field.