Saturday October 21st, 2017 5:09PM

Soccer season opens with northeast Georgia teams at forefront of state

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
  Contact Editor
With 17 playoff teams, one state runner-up, two semifinalists and four quarterfinalists, the 2012 postseason made a definitive statement about the quality of northeast Georgia soccer.

It was a performance that is still ringing in the ears of coaches around the state, as evidenced by the fact that 13 area teams enter the 2013 campaign -- which kicks off this week -- ranked inside their respective top 10s.

"I think soccer here is as strong as it's ever been," Chestatee boys soccer coach Mike Herrin said. "Soccer here is as strong as anywhere in the state -- we've had state finalists come out of our Class AAA region here in three of the past four years."

That region -- now 7-AAA -- should be intense again in 2013, with eight teams opening the year inside the top 10. But there are plenty of other standout programs around the area.

In fact a case could be made for even more area programs inside the top 10, including Herrin's War Eagles, who return nine of 11 starters from a squad that reached the 2012 Class AAA Sweet 16. Yet Herrin says his team is far more concerned with making its mark in Class AAAA this season rather than concerning itself with preseason polls.

"It's nice to get that recognition, but we don't mind not being ranked," said Herrin, whose team moved into Region 8-AAAA this season. "We're excited about what we've got. We've got a lot of potential -- but we've also got some unknowns."

It's a sentiment echoing around northeast Georgia -- even for teams with plenty of returning talent -- as reclassification and new region set-ups mean new schedules and new opponents.

"We expect to compete for championships; that's what we expect every year, but we also have a lot of questions entering the season," said Gainesville boys coach Rick Howard, who led his team to a Class AAA runner-up finish in 2012.

Indeed, the fourth-ranked Red Elephants must not only adjust to a brand new region in 8-AAAAA, Gainesville will do so with just three starters returning.

"We lost some good (assistant coaches) on the sidelines, and we lost some great players, so both me and the players will have to step up," Howard said. "We can't play like we did last year, because we don't have the same players. But I like the make-up of this team."

The Red Elephants won't be scrapping the flowing style that helped them to a state championship in 2010 and last year's title game appearance, but there could be some growing pains for an attack that returns just one full-time starter in Ricardo Gomez -- a midfielder capable of sublime performances. Luckily for Gainesville, the Red Elephants will have extra time to coalesce before the 8-AAAAA campaign begins in March.

"We're building a foundation right now," Howard said. "The basic ideas are the same, but the team looks a little different right now."

Gainesville is pleased with its defensive set-up, which features senior holding midfielder/centerback Alberto Murillo -- who has started since his freshman campaign in 2010 -- and plenty of the new starters are upperclassmen. But the Red Elephants are anxious to see how the group will coalesce against a tough schedule that includes old rival Flowery Branch, as well as non-region showdowns with Johnson (preseason No. 6 in Class AAAA), Habersham Central and McIntosh (preseason No. 1 in Class AAAAA).

"The past few years have given us high expectations, and that's the end of the story," Howard said. "Everything else starts over with this season."

High expectations also abound with the Lady Red Elephants, as well as region foe Flowery Branch.

After posting the best season in team history last season, Gainesville's girls are hoping to continue their success after reaching the Class AAA semifinals, and coach Mark Wade is optimistic thanks to the return eight seniors, including six that have played all four years for Gainesville.

"This is a real mature group, and we've brought in a talented group of freshmen too, so that mix is interesting," Wade said. "The girls want to build off last year, and I think this is the deepest team we've ever had. Everybody can play -- my challenge is how to use them all."

Catherine Chambers, Yesseli Nunez and Sidney Morrow form the backbone of a squad that has been built on defensive solidity. Yet Gainesville also features plenty of ability in attack, including senior Hartley Carter, who amassed 31 goals last season. Yet Gainesville also must replace some key starters, including midfield stalwart Liza Carpenter, and Wade knows it will be a challenge against teams like Flowery Branch.

"Flowery Branch has to be the preseason pick to win (Region 8-AAAAA)," Wade said. "But six of the eight teams we'll face have been to the playoffs recently, so everyone has talent."

The Lady Falcons (ranked ninth in Class AAAAA) also feature plenty of returning talent from last year's 8-AAAA championship team that suffered a first round playoff upset loss to Johns Creek -- including three starters that will have accepted collegiate scholarship offers in defender (and captain) Alex Lee (UAB) and midfielders Kayla Robles (Valdosta State) and Jacy Ramey (North Georgia).

"We're very deep this year, and we feel like we can offer more options, especially in midfield," coach Katie Scali said. "We don't have one big name in attack, but we're more well-rounded."

The Lady Falcons are looking to a number of options to make up for the graduation of Cassidy Elrod, the forward that led Flowery Branch's attack throughout much of her career.

"We sometimes forced the ball to her, and when you have someone that good, it's kind of hard not to," said Scali, who will field a defense and midfield that should provide a solid base for each and every attack. "I expect a lot of goals to come from midfield this year."

Goals and excitement should certainly be the order of the season for Region 7-AAA, which will feature a number of teams with designs on the postseason -- including both North Hall teams, which enter the year ranked No. 6 (girls) and No. 7 (boys), both Dawson County teams (girls and boys both ranked 10th) and both Buford teams (boys No. 5, girls No. 4).

The Lady Wolves reached the Class AA semifinals a year ago, while the East Hall boys -- who marauded all the way to the Class AA quarterfinals for the first time in program history -- also enter the year ranked No. 6. Meanwhile, the West Hall girls -- under new head coach Adam Johnson -- enter the campaign seventh.

Other teams picked in the preseason, include the Jefferson girls (No. 8 in Class AA). The Lady Dragons reached the first round of state in 2012. Riverside Military Academy also enters the season ranked eighth after the Eagles reached the Class A quarterfinals a year ago.

The Jackson County girls didn't receive a top 10 place in Class AAA, but the Lady Panthers will be eager to follow up last year's watershed state quarterfinal run. Flowery Branch's and Habersham Central's boys will also look to get back in the postseason after moving up classifications. The Falcons are under a new head coach in Rick Godfrey.

"One game can really make a difference," said Herrin, whose team returns plenty of experience including North Georgia signee Roldan Reyes and leading scorer Marco Rebollar. The War Eagles will look to battle with perennial power Johnson, as well as as a fast-rising Lanier and Eastside.

The Knights will feature three-year starter Barut Perez in defense, midfielder Israel Avila (a two-year starter), winger Jeffrey Cabrales and striker Jonathan Mendoza (a four-year starter).

"Stephens County and Lumpkin County are also good teams, and Walnut Grove really came on last year so you can't overlook anyone," Herrin said.

That's fast becoming true for every northeast Georgia program at every level.

Chestatee at Cedar Shoals -- (postponed until Wednesday)
Flowery Branch at Johnson
Lumpkin County at Gainesville
Monroe Area at Jackson County
North Hall at North Forsyth
Stephens County at Rabun County
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