For his silver anniversary as the head coach of the Lumberton boys soccer team, Kenny Simmons said the potential is there for his team to make a run at the Sandhills Athletic Conference title.
But for the 25th team under the direction of Simmons at Lumberton, getting the necessary experience for players in the periphery will need to happen to do so.
“We’re young. The other night we started three guys with no varsity experience, and one with very little,” Simmons said. “It’s going to take some time and we are going to need some games under our belt. In three or four weeks time we will be ready to go.
“We can be right in the thick of the playoff hunt in the conference.”
The Pirates enter this season without 93 percent of their goal scoring from a season ago due to graduation, led by Rene Altamirano’s 30 goals. Senior captain Josh Britt scored six goals last year and is expected to be the main part of the Lumberton attack this season.
Simmons says his team’s experience runs along the middle of the formation, from Britt to all-conference and all-region goalkeeper Joan Carillo. Senior captains Quinton Frederick and C.J. Nemeroff will be looked upon as leaders for the defensive unit, and junior Jon Von Rupp will aid in starting the attack from the midfield.
“The strength of our team is up the middle,” Simmons said. “Then there is a lot of competition for some of those outside positions on the squad.”
Junior Nate Cribb will be a two-way player for the Pirates to help out the defense in given situations, while also being asked to contribute scoring as well. Captain Hector Casarrubias is the only other goal scorer returning from last year, and his skill set will be key for the Pirates’ defense.
“Goal-wise, we want to definitely have a winning season, and I think realistically we want to see this squad finish in the top three of the conference,” Simmons said. “Maybe even put ourselves in the position to win a conference championship. I think that’s realistic. There are some areas that we still have to get better at and get the right chemistry with the players.”
After posting 44 goals in his sophomore and junior seasons, Alexis Mendez is the name on the top of everyone’s scouting report when preparing for St. Pauls.
“Obviously, everyone is going to know Mendez from last season,” St. Pauls coach Brent Martin said. “In Mendez, I foresee the conference player of the year. I’m going to go out on a limb because I’ve seen everyone in this county, and he’s flat out the best soccer player in the county.
The senior midfielder is hard to disguise on the field, but Martin isn’t sure if hiding him will work.
“Everyone knows him, so you’re going to have to have other guys step up this year,” Martin said. “It was pretty much just Mendez by himself last year as these guys were sowing their oats and learning their roles. This coming year is a coming of age for those guys and I’m optimistic of what they can offer.”
Assisting Mendez this season is a wealth of experienced players coming back from a team that underachieved in 2017 with an 8-10-3 record. With 13 seniors, Martin sees himself in the same situation he was in in the 2016 season with a senior-heavy lineup.
Alongside Mendez, Martin expects seniors like defender Bruno Ayala-Marchand, Lalo Velasquez and Sam Flores to show growth this season. Flores was second on the team last year with eight goals.
“Most of these guys have had either three or four years of varsity experience, so the expectations are a little higher,” Martin said. “Where there’s going to be a lot of pressure on stopping Mendez, there has to be a step up from the other guys around him.
“It’s got to be the full symphony. You can go listen to a band, and if it’s one violin, it sounds nice. But when you add the other accompanying instruments, people pay good money to see it. That’s what we have to have, the full symphony.”
The Bulldogs now eye a playoff berth, but to do so, that means a top-two finish in the Three Rivers Conference that has traditional powers in East Bladen and Whiteville.
“I’d actually like to see us come in first place in the conference this year,” Martin said. “I feel like we can be competitive with East Bladen and Whiteville because of our experience.”
In his first season coaching the boys team, Travis Wilson said Red Springs has no lack of skilled players.
“We’ve got a lot of talent and a lot of young players,” Wilson said. “There’s only four seniors and three that played big minutes. I feel like we are solid across the board.”
Leading the group of young, skillful players are Rafael Valencia, Michael Antonio and goalkeeper Isaac Abea. Antonio is the lone captain on the team.
“The guys are going to look to them to lead,” Wilson said.
Antonio and Valencia carry a big role as the experience in the midfield, an area Wilson thinks highly of.
“Our midfield is going to have to get the job done. That’s where we have the most players, and the best players,” Wilson said. “We outnumber most teams the way we play in the midfield. If they can figure it out, we should be able to dominate the ball and dominate the midfield.”
Through the early part of the season, freshmen Junior Gallegos, Alfredo Lazaro and Diego Lazaro have stepped up as goal-scoring threats.
“We’ve got to have some freshmen to step up for us, but you don’t love having to rely on some freshmen at varsity,” Wilson said. “We’ve got four that can start and two are ready to play.”
Purnell Swett eyes down a better record and a better finish in the Sandhills Athletic Conference, with a majority of its lineup back carrying a year of experience. After a 4-14-2 record last season, the Rams have yet to reach six wins in a season in program history.
“The boys set that as one of their goals,” Purnell Swett coach Alaric Strickland said. “This is really a mixed bag with some seniors and some freshmen. There’s a lot of freshmen in some important situations.”
While Adam Lowry, the team’s leading scorers from a year ago has graduated, the next three leading scorers return in Pacey Brooks, Logan Scott and Jafet Robles. In goal, the Rams return Nick Ramirez, who is coming off a summer earning a gold medal at the Powerade State Games.
Unlike in the past, the freshmen and underclassmen for Purnell Swett aren’t having to go through as much development and teaching, having been through youth soccer programs growing up.
“I hope the freshmen can step up and play the important roles, like midfield and center midfield,” Strickland said. “I’m hoping they will adjust and the seniors will lead by example.”
Last season, the Rams snapped a 26-match losing streak in conference play with an overtime win over Scotland.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.