How do you improve upon a 2013 high school soccer season in which seven local teams reached their respective state tournaments, three local teams made up 75 percent of the Class 4A boys state semifinals representation and two of them faced off for the 4A championship?
Doing so would be a tough task, but the area will try to continue its soccer success as a new season kicks off Monday, the first day Georgia High School Association programs can compete in 2014.
In last year’s Class 4A boys title game, Dalton ended a dominant season with a 5-0 victory over rival Southeast Whitfield to claim the second state championship in Catamounts soccer history. Southeast had advanced to the title game with a semifinals victory against Northwest Whitfield. Factor in Murray County’s boys making the Class 2A state playoffs, Coahulla Creek and North Murray’s boys making the Class 3A bracket and Northwest’s girls also advancing to state and it’s a year that set a new standard for area programs.
Here’s a look at area teams as they begin their quests for more success:
Christian Heritage alum Zach Miller is the Lions’ new head coach. The 2008 graduate has taken over from his own former coach, John Seehorn, after serving as an assistant to him last season.
While he is still getting used to being in charge, Miller has high hopes for this season.
“It has been a good transition and a little confusing sometimes as far as all of the ins and outs, but practices have gone real well,” Miller said. “After spending eight years coached by coach Seehorn and then being able to see his job from the sidelines last year, that helped out a lot.”
Especially early, the Lions — who return six starters — will need their defense to carry them, Miller said. Goalkeeper Will Jackson, defenders Christian Cady and Ben Crawford and midfielders Hutch Crawford, Cameron Hawkins and Jay Hawkins will be counted on, with junior left wing Nate Smith the only returning starter on the front line.
“We will not be a very strong offensive team because we are a little shorthanded,” Miller said. “We will have to be in better shape and outrun everyone. We haven’t had the entire team out yet because of basketball season, but I am fully confident in our team.”
The Lady Lions have a new coach as well, with Caleb Mahoney moving over from the staff at Morris Innovative. A 2007 Christian Heritage graduate, Mahoney coached Christian Heritage’s boys in 2012.
Christian Heritage’s girls were 2-8 last year, but Mahoney likes what he has seen and can’t wait to see more when basketball season ends and his roster expands.
“We are going to be a really athletic team and in very good shape,” Mahoney said. “These girls can run forever, and I am not worried about running out of steam with this group. I feel good about it if we can stay injury-free, because we don’t have a lot of depth.”
Senior Carley Causby returns at stopper, and Sarah Massengale — the leading scorer on the basketball team — will mind the net and have defensive help from senior Mollie Crawford.
Striker Jordan Suddath suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury last year, but Mahoney expects her to be at full speed because she has played most of the basketball season. Freshman midfielder Mayely Velazquez and sophomore wing Rachel Gleaton will key the offense.
“We should have a strong defense from the start, but all of our offensive players are young,” Mahoney said. “How they develop and handle the game will tell us early the kind of season we will have.”
Christian Heritage’s boys open their season against visiting Excel Christian on Feb. 18, with the girls opening Feb. 21 at Marietta’s Walker School.
The Colts made history last season, qualifying for state for the first time since the school opened in 2011. But coach Eric Parker — whose boys team lost to Oconee County in the opening round of the Class 3A tournament — isn’t patting his team on the back.
Instead, he is increasing the challenge.
After losing just one starter from last year’s 12-6-1 team, the Colts — who have eight seniors — have added teams like Buford, Murray County and Northwest to their schedule.
“We are much more experienced, especially with the senior students now starting for their third year,” said Parker, who’s also excited about the addition of a junior varsity team this season. “We have decided to play a tougher schedule and the expectations are much higher.”
Midfielder Sadoth Fraire and striker Pedro Garcia are both seniors and will key the offensive attack. Fraire led the team with 14 assists in 2013, while Garcia was the leading scorer with 27 goals. Defensively, junior goalkeeper Missael Fraire allowed just 14 goals in 18 regular-season games. All three were members of The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Boys Soccer Team last season.
The Lady Colts went 6-12 last season and have seven returning starters. LaDawn McClary has taken over as head coach of the team, but she is also a basketball assistant coach and Parker has been running preseason drills in her absence. Parker led both programs last season.
“They are improving and further along at this point this year than they were last year,” Parker said. “The record should be improved and they are talking more about playoffs and that is the expectation we have put on the girls. It has created a better work ethic.”
Sophomore goalie Melissa Cabrera will return in net to lead the defense. Senior Melody Pacheco and Ella Triplett — a mid-year transfer from New York — will patrol the midfield. Junior striker Regina Pacheco will key the offense.
“They are a better team this year,” Parker said. “Our passing is cleaner than it was last year, and our practices are cleaner. We are still trying to build with a lot of young players, but we think we have a better chance to win a lot more games.”
Coahulla Creek opens its season Monday against visiting Murray County, with the girls playing at 5 and the boys playing at 7.
As the top-ranked team in the eurosportscoreboard.com Class 4A poll for most of last season, the Cats were in everyone’s sights.
After going 22-0 and cruising to the state title — they outscored opponents 134-8 for the season, winning every match but one by at least two goals — that target on their backs probably isn’t going anywhere.
Dalton lost 10 seniors, including Ramiro Huitanda, the program’s all-time leading goal scorer and The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Boys Soccer Player of the Year each of the past two seasons.
The Cats will rely on junior Eder Mora, a center midfielder who was The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Football Player of the Year in 2013, and their senior experience is on defense. Pepe Gardea, the team’s stopper, sweeper Salvador Rodriguez and right back Edgar Hernandez will try to provide the same shutdown performance the Cats gave a year ago. They’ll be in front of a new goalkeeper, sophomore Samuel Fraire, after losing Raymundo Bahena to graduation.
“We have a lot of depth,” Dalton coach Matt Cheaves said. “Going into a season, defense is a priority first.”
As for the Lady Cats, despite an abundance of youth and multiple injuries, they nearly made the state tournament in 2013, so with experience returning, coach Tony Carlson is excited about this season.
“I’m looking at a good stack of juniors, one returning senior and a new senior,” he said.
Nallely Carrizales and Rocio Carrizales are the two seniors and both are midfielders. Julia Ortiz and Claudia Rodriguez are junior defenders. Liz Cloud and Alondra Salaises are junior strikers. Alex Brumblelow, a sophomore, returns at goalie.
Carlson believes the Lady Cats should be able to compete with Heritage-Catoosa, last year’s Sub-region 7B-4A champion, and other region contenders. He points to the team’s performance in the region tournament against River Ridge, an eventual Class 4A state quarterfinalist.
“Despite all the injuries we went through, our girls battled hard last year to finish fourth in the sub-region and played River Ridge,” Carlson said. “When they played River Ridge to a 6-5 game in overtime, you could see it clicked for them they could play a game to that level and were capable of playing with a team like River Ridge.”
The girls begin their season at 5 p.m. Tuesday against Ringgold at Harmon Field. The boys travel to Ridgeland at 5 p.m. Thursday for their season opener.
Tigers coach Ernie Dempsey is confident his team will be able to score with regular frequency this season. With just 15 players on the roster, it’s the lack of depth that concerns him.
The Tigers return four starters from last year’s team, which went 8-9 in the program’s second season of competition. It was a considerable improvement over the 1-12 showing from 2012.
Dempsey expects a strong performance from his back line, and because of losses from graduation and transfers leaving, the coach may move junior keeper Eduardo Padilla — who earned honorable mention for all-area last season — out of goal. Oscar Reyes can fill Padilla’s shoes, Dempsey said, but Padilla could move back into the net if needed.
“It’s all fluid,” Dempsey said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Forwards who should make a big impact include Marco Espinosa, Elmer Hernandez, Jonathan Herrera and David Solis, a foursome that boasts speed and quickness, Dempsey said. Carlos Beltran will play center back and Gerardo Brita will play back wing. Others expected to contribute heavily include Mynor Bautista and Luis Perez.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with our team so far,” Dempsey said. “If we can keep healthy, we’ll be all right.”
The Lady Tigers won just once in 18 games last year in their inaugural season, but coach Irene Quintero said her players gained confidence and valuable experience that will serve them well this spring.
“The big thing we saw happen last year was the growth the team showed from the start of last season to the end,” Quintero said. “The first game we lost 10-0. But on multiple occasions during the season, I had other coaches say ‘Your girls look like a whole different team.’ We can always show improvement. This year, a lot of our players are new.”
Itzel Moreno and Sabrina Sanchez could share time at goalie, and others could play there as well. Maudina Aguilar, Adriana Pena, Claudia Salaices, Samantha Trejo and Cindy Valdez are players Quintero said “aren’t afraid to give 100 percent” on defense.
Midfielders Liz Arezalos and Brianda Martinez, who may also play forward, should also be a factor. At forward, Quintero will look to Berenice Hernandez and Maria Sanchez for leadership.
“I think our biggest strength will be to use physical force,” Quintero said. “We’re building the players’ confidence.”
Morris Innovative opens it season Thursday against Bremen at Harmon Field, with the girls playing at 5 and the boys playing at 7.
Murray County’s boys team appears to have enough talent for a return to state — at least that’s the confidence Indians coach Marco Burgueno expresses going into the season.
Six starters return for the Indians from last year’s 14-4 campaign, during which they finished as Region 7-2A runner-up to Calhoun before losing to Atlanta’s Lovett in the opening round of the Class 2A state tournament.
“We should do well again,” Burgueno said. “I think that we’ll do as well as last year. Our strength should be in our adaptability to the various situations.”
Burgueno pointed to Calhoun as a “team to beat again” and also cited Coosa among the region contenders.
Senior Jose Ruiz led the Indians with 27 goals last season, and the 2013 honorable mention for all-area honors leads a group of midfielders with several veterans in the ranks. That group includes senior Filiberto Nunez, junior Alejandro Ramirez and sophomore Eric Soto.
There are two returning starters for the defense — junior Carlos Raymundo and senior Domingo Bautista — and others expected to spark the Indians are senior goalie Roberto Zuniga (who replaces graduated three-year starter Humberto Alvarez), senior forward Fernando Arias, sophomore forward John David Adams, versatile junior Juan Bautista and junior defender Rodrigo Lucas.
Although they didn’t make the state tournament last year, the Lady Indians went 10-8 and broke new ground, said coach Mandy Ledford.
“Last year was the school’s first winning season for girls soccer,” she noted. “We missed making the state playoffs by one game. That season should give us some momentum. However, we graduated 11 seniors, including seven starters. A lot of our girls played JV.”
Senior midfielders Baylee Cudd and Catherine Gonzales lead the returning varsity players, while senior Tania Zuniga and junior Marai Hernandez saw extensive action as defenders. The team’s other seniors are forward Aracely Garcia and midfielder Stacy Sandoval.
The team also has a large junior class, made up of Eve Bautista, Heidy Cabral, Yesenia Castenda, Morgan Devitt, Paxton Dolly, Sarah Karlsen, Catrina Lopez, Sandra Ramirez, Celena Sanchez and Deyna Sanchez.
Murray County opens its season Monday at Coahulla Creek, with the girls playing at 5 and the boys playing at 7.
The Mountaineers helped solidify the area’s soccer reputation last season as they won the Region 5-3A title — a year after winning the Region 7-2A crown — and advanced to the second round of the Class 3A state tournament.
But it only left the team wanting more after feeling like they squandered what they felt should have been a deeper run.
It was the third year in a row the Mountaineers had advanced to the second round or beyond at state, and there is a bigger hunger for more this season after a 15-3 record in 2013.
“I think we are poised to make another run at region champs again, and the boys are excited to hopefully try for a deep run at state,” North Murray coach Matt Chambers said.
The Mountaineers are led by do-everything midfielder Ismael Cruz, but they return the area’s best goalie from last season — junior Manuel Gonzalez. An all-area selection in 2013, Gonzalez finished the year with 84 saves and helped the team in 10 shutouts.
Gonzalez isn’t alone, either — the team will have 14 seniors, with any of the front seven capable of scoring multiple goals on any given night.
For the girls, 2013 was definitely a rebuilding year with an underclassmen-dominated team that included three freshmen starters. It showed as well with a 1-14 record, but by the end of the season, the Lady Mountaineers were a much more competitive team.
This season, coach Justin Frazier expect those difficult times from last year to pay off.
“At the beginning of the 2013 season, we were losing in blowouts, but by the halfway point we were losing close games to top teams in the region,” he said. “Continuing on that momentum, we expect to move past the competitive status reached by the end of the last season to now be a formidable challenger.”
The team will still be young with only two seniors, led by Jennifer Sanchez, who started as a defensive back last year. The large junior class will feature wing Jessica Rangel, midfielders Victoria Jacobo and Leigha Taylor, defender Leslie Rangel, utility player Megan Pittman and keeper Amber Bandy.
“With a nearly full starting lineup returning to the field, along with great new talent added at various grade levels, the team has depth and experience which were sorely lacking last year,” Frazier said. “Going from a team of newbies to a team of veterans should make a big difference this season.”
North Murray’s season opens its season Feb. 25 against visiting Ringgold.
The Bruins were the runners-up in Region 7-4A last year, but a disappointing 2-0 loss to Southeast in the Class 4A state semifinals cut short the best season in program history.
Northwest coach Ryan Scoggins now believes — after two straight state tournament appearances — that making it to state and winning there is an expectation.
“I don’t think you do lower your expectations,” said Scoggins, whose Bruins finished 16-6 last year. “You can be reasonable about it. ... With each year, you set the bar higher for your program.
“Dalton and Southeast have been making deep runs for years. Last year, we finally got into the conversation.”
The team returns three seniors, all on defense. Miguel Villa, sweeper, is joined by stopper Kevin Centeno and left back David Franco.
“To have your strength in the back line makes you feel a little better,” Scoggins said. “I definitely trust those guys.”
Like Dalton’s boys, Northwest graduated 10 seniors, including David and Christian Perez, both of whom were all-area selections.
Several juniors will step into bigger roles. Bryan Villa returns at center midfield. Brandon Jimenez was a backup right midfielder last year and will now be the starter. David Paz becomes the team’s main striker, while Jose Marquez replaces Miguel Deanda at goalie.
Last season, the Lady Bruins advanced to state for the first time — but they’ll try to make their next trip under a coach who is both new and familiar to the program.
Melissa Torbett takes over from Anna Stutts, who led the Lady Bruins to an 11-4 mark in 2013, which ended with a 4-0 loss to Grady in the opening round of state after they finished second in Sub-region 7B-4A and third in Region 7-4A. Torbett previously led the program in its first five seasons, from 2003-07, and she’ll be assisted by Kim Smyth, who assisted her in 2006 and 2007.
Senior Juliana Gomez returns at striker after earning all-area honors a year ago. Sophomore midfielder Nancy Paz is another key returning starter, while Judeth Tapia and Yamileks Vaca, both seniors, add experience to the back line. Gracie Holmes, another senior, returns at goalkeeper after tallying eight shutouts a year ago.
“We have to win region,” Torbett said. “There are no bones about it. We hope to win the region. We don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t with the talent and experience they have playing together.”
Northwest’s girls open their season at 5 p.m. Monday at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, while the boys kick off their schedule at 7 p.m. Thursday against visiting Rome.
The Raiders finished 13-5-1 last year, but the number 5 might haunt them as more than the total of their losses in 2013 — they also allowed five goals to Dalton in the state championship.
Will that become a motivational tool this season? Southeast boys coach Kevin Kettenring hopes so.
“We’re not satisfied because we didn’t come home with the big prize,” Kettenring said. “We haven’t discussed the past or even the present. We’re trying to plug holes.”
The Raiders lost three all-area selections to graduation — midfielders Jorge Hurtado and Alex Rosillo and midfielder Jorge Hurtado — so now seniors Jamie Arenas, David Gonzalez and Jonathan Sanchez are being asked to fill their shoes. Kettenring said any of them could play midfield or striker after the team graduated “80 to 85 percent” of its offensive production.
Like Dalton and Northwest, Southeast will rely on experience on defense, including junior Isael Gutierrez, a returning all-area defender. Victor Garcia, a junior midfielder, has a ruptured appendix and may not be on the field until March. Abel Mendiola, a 2012 all-area selection, returns at goalkeeper for his senior year. Diego Nuñez is another senior defender.
“We have to emphasize our strength and we look to that experience as our strength,” Kettenring said. “On paper, these guys are our strength and have been through it.”
The Lady Raiders didn’t make the region tournament a year ago, and Mark Parsons replaces Amanda Ramfjord as head coach.
Parsons doesn’t have any soccer coaching experience but will receive help from assistant Victor Rodriguez, a former Raiders standout.
Andrea Lopez is back at striker for her senior season. Clarissa Martinez, a junior, could play a few spots in the midfield, while Sydney Covington, a sophomore sweeper, rounds out the three returning starters.
Despite the team being on the inexperienced side, its new coach believes he’ll enjoy building the program to his liking from the start.
“I prefer working with underclassmen,” Parsons said. “The ones we have coming up who are freshmen and sophomores are really talented. Our junior class will be really good this year.”
Melisa Fraire will be the Lady Raiders’ goalkeeper.
“She’s really stepped it up as a freshman,” Parsons said.
Maria Quijano, a junior, is another new face who could help Southeast. Parsons said Quijano could play a number of positions, including striker.
Southeast opens its season Tuesday at Gordon Central, with the girls playing at 5 and the boys at 7.