At Gainesville, the Red Elephants are setting out to defend their state title.
At Dawson County, Jed Lacey is in the process of juggling coaching duties for both the girls and boys teams.
And all area teams, and teams statewide for that matter, are adjusting to the GHSA’s area realignment.
These are just a few of the story lines that head the 2011 soccer season.
The Red Elephants lost significant talent from their Class AAA title team, including The Times’ All-Area Player of the Year Irving Salgado and All-Area Team members Russ Puckett, Monish Lahiry and Marco Monreal, but don’t expect them to lie down to the competition in the revamped Area 8-AAA.
“We have a very strong team,” Red Elephants coach Rick Howard said. “About the biggest name we have is the one on the front of our jersey. We have good players, don’t get me wrong, but we’re not about a superstar. We’ll probably go 16-17 players deep this year, and when we sub there’s no drop-off in talent.”
Howard will lean on six returning starters to provide leadership and contend with the rest of the region, which includes area schools Johnson, West Hall, North Hall, Chestatee, White County and Lumpkin County.
Johnson returns five starters and coach Brian Shirley believes the new area will be competitive. Last year, the Knights were the only other area school in the new Area 8-AAA to qualify for the state playoffs.
“I think we’re in a tough (area),” Shirley said. “Oconee County is great and they reload every year, and it’s always hard playing Gainesville, West Hall, North Hall and Chestatee. We gotta bring our best game every night.”
On the girls’ side of 8-AAA, Johnson and Gainesville were also the only two area teams to advance state. The Lady Red Elephants were the only of the two to get out of the first round.
“We lost some really talented seniors and have to replace some people,” Lady Red Elephants coach Mark Wade said. “But we played a lot of young girls, so we’re excited about that.”
The Lady Red Elephants return 2010 Times Player of the Year Hong Tran, along with All-Area Team member Liza Carpenter.
North Hall’s Lady Trojans will compete without their best player from a year ago, All-Area team member and Auburn commitment Tess Patten. This would have been her senior season, but she’s now at Faith Academy.
“We’ve got a pretty big turnover from last year,” Lady Trojans coach Nathan Wallace said. “We’ve lost 10 players and have just three returning starters. But we have several girls who have been with the program and are ready to step into new roles.
“We’ll have a little bit of a different look this year.”
In Region 8-AA, Lacey has his hands full with the entire soccer program — he heads the boys and girls varsity and junior varsity teams.
“It took a while to organize, but now we’re on a roll,” said Lacey of his teams — both the boys and girls reached the A/AA state playoffs. “(All the teams) spend a lot of time training together, and we have five coaches to help out.”
The Tigers will feature seven underclassmen starters, but Lacey expects them to compete in an area that includes schools like East Hall, Jefferson, Jackson County, Banks County and Union County. Lacey called his team “probably the most quality team I’ve coached in my life.”
Lacey said his mission with the girls team is to build it, and he he’ll encourage his players to become involved in club soccer.
“I’ve only got five girls in club soccer right now,” he said. “I strongly encourage it, because I had a starter one year that didn’t even make the team the next year because club players passed him skill-wise.”
Flowery Branch is the lone Hall County school in Class AAAA, residing now in Area 8 along with another area school, Habersham Central, which is the five-time defending area champion on the boys side.
“That’s going to be our toughest competition,” Falcons coach Jeremy Purdy said. “After that, the drop-off isn’t much. This will be a highly competitive region, with at least five or six teams battling for a top four spot to go to state.”
Purdy believes his team can be in that mix.
“I think we’re going to have a strong season,” he said.
Other area teams in new areas include Buford and Lakeview in 6-AA, and Riverside Military, Commerce and Towns County in 8-A.