Aug. 29—MITCHELL — A half-dozen matches into the 2023 season, many of Scott Mullenmeister's expectations for the Mitchell High School girls soccer program have already been eclipsed.
As the calendar flips to September, MHS is a perfect 6-0-0 — one win away from matching their 2022 total — and alone atop the Class AA seed points standings. And with half of the regular season still to come, the Kernels are hopeful it may be just the beginning of a special season.
"(Winning) hasn't changed much for us. We're a 'take it one game at a time' type of team," said Mullenmeister, who moved from assistant coach to head coach of the Kernels this season. "We certainly have our eyes on the playoffs and have goals that we set, but right now we're focused on taking care of business and getting better each game. That's been happening, so it's fun."
It didn't take long for the Mitchell High School girls soccer program to show that something is different about the 2023 squad.
The Kernels knocked off Class AA preseason No. 1 Harrisburg 3-2 in the season opener and took down Class A No. 1 Sioux Falls Christian 2-0 four days later. As of Aug. 28, it remains the lone blemish for both teams. MHS has also handed Class A Groton Area its lone defeat to date and has a win over a Spearfish squad with a record above .500 to its credit.
While MHS has scored 25 goals in six matches, Mullenmeister points to the defense as key to the Kernels' unblemished record. Anchored by the likes of junior goalkeeper Tenley Peterson, who has 36 saves, along with senior outside back Maddie Kempf and sophomore center back Kassedy Knippling, among others, MHS has allowed six total goals and kept clean sheets in three of six matches.
"There's a lot of talk of goals and assists, but the strength of our back line is a really big part in our success so far; they've been absolutely phenomenal," Mullenmeister said. "They're far exceeding my expectations, and I'm so proud of how they're working together as a unit."
On the offensive end, MHS has scored multiple goals in five of six matches, including outings of 10 goals against Sturgis and six against Brookings. Mia Mullenmeister leads the way with 17 goals, while Kenzi Kayl has five goals, and Arian Bird, Makenzie Peterson and Knippling have one each. Kayl's five assists lead the team, followed by Makenzie Peterson (4), Taryn Thomas (3) and Adelyn Prunty (2), while Mullenmeister and Ashlynn Pollreisz have one assist apiece.
"On the offensive side of things, every game we get a little better at finding each other and combining," Mullenmeister said. "We're getting our midfielders involved in the attack now, which is making our attack very dangerous. It's really fun to watch and exciting, fun soccer."
This year's stream of successes is the reward for several years of hard work and growth as a team.
The 2023 roster has five seniors — Bird, Kempf, Mullenmeister, Prunty and Lily Peterson — nearly double the three total graduates to depart the program over the past two seasons. The result is a squad that, while still fielding several underclassmen, boasts a plethora of varsity experience and has bench depth at every position.
"What you see today is a group that's been developing over quite a few years," Scott Mullenmeister explained. "Looking at it before the season, I knew we'd be good on paper, but they're far exceeding the expectations I set for them. We're playing really well together as a unit, and that's a testament to that development.
"We have a great bench and get quality minutes from a lot of subs," he added. "I know I can put any one of those girls and expect them to perform as well as a starter. That's another big strength of ours."
Moving into the back half of the regular season schedule, the Kernels' slate relaxes. Where the front half featured several opponents with winning records, just two remaining opponents are currently above .500. One of the two is Pierre, which stands alongside Mitchell and Rapid City Stevens as the remaining Class AA teams that are unbeaten and untied through Aug. 28.
Of note, the Kernels do not play Stevens, Rapid City Central or any of the five Class AA Sioux Falls schools during the regular season.
But Mullenmeister maintains that the Kernels aren't looking too far ahead. They're focused on winning the game in front of them and finding ways to improve. Among those areas the team is focused on right now is winning the battle in the midfield and getting the midfielders even more involved in the offensive attack.
"This season has been interesting. There's been a lot of crazy upsets, and it seems like any given night, it could be anyone's game," Mullenmeister said. "But they've been handling (the success) really well and have a really good mentality."
All signs point toward MHS earning a high postseason seed and hosting privileges in at least the first round. That would go a long way toward aiding the Kernels' goal of advancing through the opening round of the playoffs, something an MHS soccer team has never done before.
"I think we can go very deep into the playoffs, and I'm very excited about that," Mullenmeister said.