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Area soccer coaches eager to hit the pitch
Bekah English, left, a senior, keeps the ball away from teammate Julia Sienkiewicz, a sophomore, Tuesday during varsity soccer practice at Flowery Branch High School. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Katie Scali is just one of many coaches eager to get the soccer season underway. Coming off an undefeated season in Region 8-AAAA and a trip to the second round of the playoffs, the Lady Falcons’ coach returns the entire starting lineup in 2012, along with a transfer from North Gwinnett High and a couple freshmen that will play considerable minutes.

“We’re pretty excited to get started,” Scali said. “I know the players on our team have high expectations for themselves.”

And the Flowery Branch girls are not alone in expecting a deep run this season. Also in Class AAAA, the Habersham Central boys, No. 6 in the state poll by, enter the season after back-to-back trips to the state semifinals, and have registered at least 15 wins a year in the past three years.

In Class AAA, No. 6 Gainesville and No. 8 Johnson both begin the season as ranked squads on the boys side, and the Chestatee girls are 10th. In Class AA, the Buford girls (No. 6) and boys (No. 7) are also both ranked.

Leading the way for the Flowery Branch girls is senior Cassidy Elrod, who has combined for 60 goals since 2009 and has led the Lady Falcons in scoring every year. On top of that, Scali has a strong team defensively with Morgan Glenn, Alex Lee and Cashen Philyaw, along with a four-year started at goalkeeper in Lauren Dunn.

Sophomore Corey Thomas will also see considerable playing time in her first year at Flowery Branch after moving in from North Gwinnett, according to Scali, along with a couple of freshmen.

“I feel like it’s a different coaching dynamic this season, since we’re picking up where we left off last season,” Scali said. “Our only concern is that we don’t want to grow too comfortable.”

Starting out at No. 10 in the state, the Lady War Eagles have one of the biggest scoring threats in the area with junior Alexis Rebollar, who scored 35 goals last season and in 2011 was The Times’ Girls Area Player of the Year. After graduating eight seniors, Dunn is going to rely on seniors Celia Penado and Shannon Grossman, sweeper Jessi Stephens, and sophomore goalkeeper Mandy Chavez to get past some early season growing pains. Sadie Foote and Madison Dunn are also two names to watch for Chestatee, according to Coach Dunn.

Johnson coach Phil Higgins believes his program is on the cusp of putting together another solid season after a Region 8-AAA runner-up finish and berth in the playoffs in 2011. The Lady Knights return 10 players with ample varsity experience, including midfielders Kayln Dumanowsky, Ana Torres and Bethany Johnson, Lily Silva and Emily Byers on defense, and a budding standout in sophomore forward Chandler Steele.

Gainesville, North Hall and West Hall will also look to make some noise in Region 8-AAA.

The Lady Red Elephants (11-6 last season) are strong in the midfield with senior Liza Carpenter and junior Mary-Catherine Dempsey. Three-year starters Catherine Chambers, Sidney Morrow and Yesseli Nunez, all juniors, give Gainesville coach Mark Wade some depth.

“I expect we will at least be competitive with the top teams in our region,” Wade said. “We have a few freshmen that really complement the returning players well.”

For West Hall, coach Gareth Allcott has a roster with 11 seniors, six of whom are four-year starters, led by Tania Perez, Brooke Reed and Elizabeth Gale. Allcott says that Region 8-AAA is talented with seventh-ranked Oconee County and Chestatee at the top, but also added quality with Gainesville, Johnson and White County too.

“I hope that we’re in serious contention for a place at state come the final game of the year,” Allcott said.

Meanwhile, North Hall is trying to get over the hump after finishing fifth in Region 8-AAA the past two seasons. This season, four-year starter Taylor Knight will anchor the defense, along with fellow seniors Anna Matthews and Janet Martinez back for the Lady Trojans.

Juniors Olivia Smith and Kelsey Underwood give North Hall a solid combo at center midfield. Junior Alex Lawson was the team’s leading scorer last season at forward, and sophomore Alden Powell is back as starting goalkeeper.

In boys action, Gainesville, the state champion in Class AAA just two years ago, looks to bring another highly competitive team to the field with talented all across the pitch.

Senior midfielder and Georgia Southern University signee Aiden Reising, defender Nathan Dillard and goalkeeper Edgar Espanoza are the most experienced for the Red Elephants (15-4 last season). Also for Gainesville, juniors Alberto Murrillo and Douglas Mejia, and sophomore midfielder Ricardo Gomez are back starting.

First-year North Hall coach Jonathan Lillie says that his team is led by seniors Ramon Salamanca and Dillon Martin in the midfield, and Cody Pfister on defense. Lillie says that the Trojans (11-7 last season, second round of playoffs) have a roster that is equally strong through all four classes, which should keep the program strong for seasons to come.

“If we play together this season, we can be a force,” Lillie said.

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