Anyone who watched La Salle's run to the state title last season should understand why staying at the top will be a challenge after losing five key starters, including four Class 1A all-state selections.

Coach Felix Hernandez knows it won't be easy to find replacements for players like the school's all-time goal-scoring leader Kamryn Fiscus, midfielder Peyton McCrea and stalwart defenders Lauren Desmarais and Madeline Britt. Yet he's also been preparing his team for this season, taking steps to ensure the Lightning will be ready to meet its usual sky-high expectations.

"We've had plenty of years like this where we've lost a huge starting group that contributed big, but one of the things is we really focus on building off our young kids," Hernandez said. "Even though a lot of people don't see them, they're more than capable."

La Salle's dominance in league play affords plenty of opportunities for bench players to earn varsity experience, but Hernandez also tries to give them valuable minutes against high-quality nonleague opponents. Winning and losing don't matter so much as giving the coaches a chance to see where everyone fits and find out who's ready to play at a high level.

Indeed, the Lightning lost all three of its truly competitive regular season games last season — 1-0 against Selah and Overlake, plus a 4-1 loss against West Valley in which La Salle took an early second-half lead. All three teams are on the schedule again this year and will be critical as Hernandez and his staff evaluate their new roster.

Some solid pieces remain with the return of defenders Rylee Goins and Natalie Newman, as well as forward Gillian Martin. She scored 32 goals as a sophomore and said she's ready to communicate better as she takes on more of a leadership role.

"We still have quite a few starters from last year, so I think there'll still be a lot of good chemistry on the field," Martin said. "Then we've got incoming freshmen that are really good, too."

The most impressive of those newcomers appears to be Kendall Moore, the younger sister of Kolbein Moore, who led the West Valley boys in scoring last season. Hernandez said Moore has played up two grades with elite all-region teams and she's capable of stepping in to fill the vital attacking midfielder role previously held by Fiscus.

Another freshman, Hailey Price, looks ready to start immediately on defense alongside Goins, who's at center back. The sophomore will take over the critical position of last defender in front of junior goalie Hayley Stohr, and Newman said Goins certainly possesses the requisite talent.

"I think she just needs to believe in herself like we all do," Newman said. "I think it might take a couple of games, but she'll get it. She's a really good leader."

It won't be easy to match the defensive success of last season, when La Salle never gave up more than one goal in its last 18 matches and finished with 13 shutouts. This year's group will look considerably different with Goins moving from the outside to the middle, and Newman retaining her wing position but also increasing her role in the attack.

The Lightning return plenty of scoring weapons, and Grace Liscano took advantage of a chance to develop chemistry with Martin when forward Tatiana White missed several games due to injury last season. Hernandez believes La Salle's talent could be good enough for a fourth straight trip to the state semifinals, but Newman and others know they need to improve to reach that potential.

"We just need to work hard to get it out of everyone," Newman said. "We don't just have that natural ability, so I think if we keep working hard like we are, we're still going to be a really big threat."

Reach Luke Thompson at luthompson@yakimaherald.com and on Twitter: @luketscribe