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High school soccer: Competition tight among playoff hopefuls
Olivia Smith, of North Hall, works her way between Lakeview Academy players Elise Biegler, left, and Liz Kenny in the Northeast Georgia Mountain Cup on Monday at Chestatee. - photo by Tom Reed | The Times

If initial rankings serve as any indication, it’s shaping up to be a stellar season of high school soccer across the area. Look no further than Region 7-AAA for proof of that. Four girls teams (Buford, Dawson County, West Hall and North Hall) and four boys teams (Buford, Dawson County, East Hall and North Hall) all opened the season ranked in the top 10 on

Realignment has played a part in how things look this season. Gainesville has jumped two levels to Class AAAAA, while Johnson, Flowery Branch and Chestatee each moved up one classification.

And with region matches still a month away, these first games are used for teams to set their roster and have the field in place for the games that count toward playoff qualifying and seeding.

Last season was one of the best in history locally with 16 programs making the state playoffs.

Region 8-AAAAA
The only major shift to this region during realignment was the addition of Gainesville. That certainly adds to the strength of the region.

The third-ranked Gainesville boys are coming off a trip to the state championship game in Class AAA last season.

Although Ricardo Gomez is the lone full-time starter who returns this season, he has proven to be a talented midfielder, and the Red Elephants are expected to remain a contender. Gainesville (2-0) has a tough nonregion schedule to open the season with games against Creekview, Habersham Central, Johnson and McIntosh.

The Lady Red Elephants (1-1) also have talent at the top with senior Hartley Carter coming off a 31-goal campaign in 2012 en route to the state semifinals. Gainesville also returns key starters Catherine Chambers and Sidney Morrow.

The Flowery Branch girls open the season at No. 10 in Class AAAAA, led by college-bound seniors Jacy Ramey, Alex Lee and Kayla Robles. Even with the graduation of leading 2012 scorer Cassidy Elrod, Lady Falcons coach Katie Scali is happy with her core group, including junior Corrie Thomas and emerging freshman Kimberly McNeil.

According to Scali, Robles and Thomas will do the bulk of the scoring, now that Elrod has moved on to play at Georgia Southern University.

The Lady Falcons have won the last two Region 8-AAAA titles, so Scali knows what to expect from most of the programs they’ll face in league play.

“Our region didn’t change a lot,” Scali said. “Adding Gainesville certainly strengthened it.”

After the two teams mentioned, she expects Heritage, Winder-Barrow and Apalachee to compete for the other playoff spots.

Region 8-AAAA
Johnson and Chestatee, both 2-0, are ranked early in the season in Class AAAA. The Lady War Eagles will be in force in Region 8-AAAA with the presence of the school’s all-time leading scorer Alexis Rebollar back on the pitch.

In addition to Rebollar, Lady War Eagles coach Mark Dunn is counting on sophomore forward Sadie Foote, midfielder Madison Dunn and Samantha Addington, among others, to lead the way.

“I feel like our strength is in the backfield this season,” Dunn said.

According to Knights boys coach Brian Shirley, there’s great parity in the region with Eastside, Lanier, Walnut Grove, Lumpkin County and Stephens County building stronger programs. Shirley said the style of play may be a bit different from what they grew used to with possession-oriented programs the last two seasons in Region 8-AAA.

According to Shirley, teams in Region 8-AAAA show tendencies to play a more “direct, physical style.”

Leading the way for the Knights this season are midfielders Jonathan Mendoza and Israel Avila, and defender Barut Perez — all three are returning starters.

The Chestatee boys should be on an equal footing near the top of the region with most of its starters back from the 2012 team that reached the second round of the playoffs.

Region 7-AAA
Starting on the girls side, the talent is deep. New addition Buford (2-0) made the state semifinals last season, while Dawson County is coming off a state quarterfinal run. The West Hall girls, currently ranked No. 7, are also coming off a state playoff appearance in 2012.

The North Hall girls missed out on the postseason last season, but bring back seniors Brianne Truelove, Alex Lawson, Kelsey Underwood, Hannah Young and Olivia Smith, which has Lady Trojans coach Nathan Wallace feeling encouraged, along with the return of goalkeeper Alden Powell.

Ranked No. 6 currently, the Dawson County girls (1-0) are led by McKay Shively, who scored 20 goals last season.

With an eight-team region, there’s only seven games that will count toward the region standing. While many of these programs are used to playing one another, the addition of Banks County and Fannin County brings some fresh competition to the mix.

On the boys side, East Hall remains strong after a state quarterfinal run last season, and North Hall is back after making the first round last season. Dawson County is led by the return of Brooks Fulford and Jose Miranda.

Once the playoffs roll around, Region 7-AAA will face Region 6-AAA, which is home to the only three private schools — all of which are ranked — in the classification.

Region 8-AA
The Riverside Military boys are coming off a stellar season that extended all the way to the state quarterfinals in 2012. Currently ranked No. 6 in Class AA, the Eagles open region competition against Washington-Wilkes on March 1 in Gainesville.

Last season, Riverside surged into the postseason by winning 12 of its first 14 matches, losing only to Providence Christian during that span.

The Jefferson girls are also currently ranked heading into the regular season, currently sitting at No. 8.

Region 8-A

In Class A, the Lakeview Academy boys return after making the state playoffs last season, losing 3-0 to Landmark Christian in the first round. The Lions posted a 5-3 mark in region play last season, losing only to Riverside Military in the final month of the regular season.

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