LUMBERTON — The four Robeson County boys soccer coaches give a look at their teams ahead of the 2017 season that will feature teams with new faces and conferences with new teams.
With the largest roster he has ever had as a coach for the Pirates, Kenny Simmons now has to figure out where the puzzle pieces will fit in his starting lineup heading into the season.
“Like any year, the challenge is trying to fill the void left by graduation, but overall I’m pleased with what I have saw,” he said. “We are returning a good core.”
The Pirates bring back 15 returners from varsity last year and a large group of players rising up from the jayvee team. Simmons has over 25 on the roster heading into the season. The strength of the team will come from players on opposite ends of the field.
Now a senior, Rene Altamirano will be the main cog that the offensive front will work around. He has accumulated a three-year total of 43 goals and 15 assists.
“He’s kind of our mainstay in the middle we build around,” Simmons said of Altamirano. “We are expecting big things out of him in his senior year and he’s shown increased maturity so that’s a plus.”
Joining Altamirano in the Pirates attack once again is the like of Christian Santos, Noah Taylor and Cole Lewis.
“Those guys make up the core group that gives us our offense,” Simmons said, “but we’ve got to find the right combination and see how it works. We’ve got a lot left to figure out, but it’s still early.”
While a lot of the focus goes straight to football in the new Sandhills Athletic Conference, Simmons sees that soccer will also have an increase level of play with Jack Britt and Seventy-First coming to play.
“I’ve seen what the football coaches have said about the gauntlet that the teams will have to go through, and us soccer coaches feel about the same way,” he said. “With a larger number of conferences games, it’s going to make it interesting.”
With the number of players down this preseason, Purnell Swett coach Alaric Strickland said he knows that’s part of the building process that he is leading the program through, but the pieces are starting to fall into place for the Rams.
“We know we have the numbers in the youth leagues, it’s all about getting them here (when they are old enough),” he said of his roster that is around 14 players. “It’s something we are really anticipating and we look at it year-by-year.”
Strickland said the strength for Purnell Swett will be in it’s defense with several returners coming back to add experience to the back line.
“I’m hoping we will have a strong defense. The boys have played hard and know what is expected of them,” he said.
Players like Jamison Strickland, Pacey Brooks and Adam Lowery will be expected to protect sophomore goalkeeper Nick Ramirez after starting in goal as a freshman.
“We are expecting big things out of him. He’s really matured this year even though he is just a sophomore,” Strickland said of Ramirez.
Joel Lowery, Jydor Locklear and Vidal Velasquez will power the offense. Last year as a junior, Velasquez had a team-best 17 goals.
Freshman Jafet Robles will be put in the midfield as one of the leaders, and Strickland said he is ready to take on the learning curve that comes with starting as a freshman.
After losing 15 seniors from a year ago, St. Pauls coach Brent Martin said he is expecting this year to be one where he acclimates his young team to varsity play. The roster that is loaded with juniors now takes on a new challenge this year as they take over the team.
“It’s going to be a building year for us for sure and we are going to try and gain as much experience as we can,” Martin said. “I’m not saying that I’m considering this a lost season because I hope we will compete, but most importantly I want our guys to gel and become a team.”
Three players return with varsity experience from last year in Alexis Mendez, Bruno Ayala and Brian Vallejo. Mendez came onto the scene as a sophomore on senior laden team last year and notched a team-high 13 goals last year and will be expected to be more of a leader this year.
“I’m thankful to have him come along last year, and now we have someone we can try take his abilities to build around,” Martin said.
Ayala and Vallejo were two leaders of the defensive back line and will be expected to carry the load on the defensive end as well.
Joining that trio are three newcomers that Martin has seen come along through the preseason. Freshman Sergio Sachez, Christopher Canuto and Juan Roque will be expected to step up now on the varsity team that are ready to take the next step.
With the new conference alignment that brings East and West Bladen to the Three Rivers Conference, and Whiteville moving from 1A to 2A, the conference also has become tougher in the eyes of Martin.
“Obviously it has got a lot tougher, East Bladen is always a good team and with Whiteville moving to 2A it is tougher for us to get playoff seeds and win the conference,” he said. “It puts a lot more value on the conference.”
Three years ago, it was a lack of leadership that was hurting Red Springs, but that worry isn’t in the mind of coach Eduardo Torres.
The Red Devils return several players at all three levels and Torres likes the way his team has gelled through practice.
“I think that we have good experience, but don’t have experience playing as a team. That is where we have put in all the work, on teamwork,” Torres said.
A part of the leaders working to become better has come with how they communicate.
“I’ve seen the players calm down to talk to each other. They are talking a lot more coordinated to win,” Torres said.
Leaders for the team Torres sees are Francis Rodriguez, Jose Villalva and Martin Mendoza, all upperclassmen that were key parts to the team last year.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.