By RYAN HERMAN
Heading into Monday’s season opener Lincolnton High’s boys soccer team is in a familiar position –– being ranked.
The Wolves, who open the season at home against North Gaston at 6 p.m. on Monday, are ranked 12th in the state among 2A schools in EurosportScoreboard.com’s preseason rankings.
Being ranked is something Lincolnton has become accustomed to. This year, coach Ian Leith hopes his team can prove it belongs.
“That’s a position we’re familiar with,” he said. “I like the ranking, so I hope that we live up to it.”
The Wolves are coming off a year in which they went 17-5-1, won the Southern Piedmont 1A/2A Conference and reached the third round of the NCHSAA state 2A playoffs before being bounced by eventual Western Regional runner-up Newton-Conover. But that was last year. This year’s a different season.
Lincolnton lost 15 seniors, eight starters, off last year’s team. Leith believes the Wolves’ starters can be as good as last season’s, but there’s a lack of depth that concerns the fifth-year head coach.
“I think we’ll be pretty good. We won’t be as good as last year –– we lost a lot of depth. The starting lineup will perform at about the same level, but we just can’t go into our bench. That’ll be a transition for us,” Leith said.
Two players Leith said he is counting on this season are Juan Abonza, a three-year sweeper that will most-likely move to the center-mid position, and Jeffrey Perez.
“We’ll rely on those two a lot,” Leith said.
Leith said he sees his team being able to produce a lot of goals.
“I think we can score. We can score a lot of goals. We have a lot of players that have some experience playing against high-level teams, and that’s a good thing,” he said.
A weakness Leith sees is the tempo of his team may not quite be where it needs to be to compete with the gauntlet that will be the new Southern District 7 Athletic 2A Conference.
“Our main weakness right now, we have a tendency to move a little slower than the high-level games are going to require us to move,” Leith said. “We need to pick up the pace. We can’t hold the ball long.”
Mustangs ready to move forward: East Lincoln, which had advanced to at least the third round of the state playoffs for three straight seasons, won just four matches in 2012 and failed to qualify for the state playoffs.
Consider last year’s failures a thing of the past.
The Mustangs, who open at Southlake Christian on Monday, return eight starters from a team last season that suffered after graduating 13 from a 2011 team that reached the NCHSAA state 2A regional semifinals. The youngsters that played last year also suffered several injuries.
Now, those freshmen and sophomores are a year older and ready to put East Lincoln back to soccer prominence.
“We were really, really young last year. We had three freshmen and five sophomores regularly starting. We were using 10 freshmen and sophomores for most of every game. We had a lot of injuries during the year to those core players,” 13-year Mustangs head coach Jason Dragoon said.
“We’re going to be pretty good. I think the boys have had a good preseason,” Dragoon added. “We were hoping this year, we want to kind of get back to where we were.”
East Lincoln returns a core group of juniors, five of them, who will start every match. Tyler Mistley is one of the top returners for Dragoon, who said, “He’s been playing with us since he was a sophomore –– a very good player.”
With the junior class being at the core of the program, there is still some youth to overcome. That’s why Dragoon isn’t looking to rush into the SD-7 and win the conference right away –– he’s being a little more realistic.
Dragoon just wants to make the playoffs, and win as many matches as his team loses.
“No excuses this year. We’re going to find a way to get ourselves to .500 or better, and play our way into the playoffs. That’s our focus right now,” he said.
With Newton-Conover ranked fourth and Lincolnton 12th among 2A schools, Dragoon believes the new SD-7 is one of the best, if not the best, boys soccer conference in the state.
“Our conference, I believe, is the toughest in the 2A, arguably the toughest 2A conference in the state of North Carolina at the moment,” he said. “Somebody that could be winning a playoff game is sitting at home (at season’s end). Our goal is to not be that team. We want to get in. If we can get in we feel we can make some things happen.”
To do that, the Mustangs are going to have to shed what happened last season.
“Everything on that is going to be us stepping out of our shell and really showing that last year was our rebuilding year and we don’t need another one to get back to where we need to be,” Dragoon said. “That’s kind of where we’re at.”
Rebels eye back-to-back playoff appearances: West Lincoln did something last season no other boys soccer program had done and that’s make the state playoffs.
The Rebels aren’t stopping there.
Sixth-year head coach Tom Riley said the goals for 2013 is to feed off the disappointment of losing in last year’s first round, albeit to 20-match winner South Iredell, and to get back.
“That’s our goal again this year, to try and get back to the state playoffs,” said Riley, whose team hosts East Rutherford in the season opener on Monday. “The guys weren’t really quite satisfied with just making it.”
West Lincoln, which finished third in the SPC1A/2A last season and went 7-9-1 overall, lost six seniors but return five starters.
The biggest burden facing the Rebels this season, Riley believes, is the conference they’re now a part of.
In the past, eight-team boys soccer conferences got five state playoff berths. This year, with the new seeding rules, only four teams from the SD-7 will make it.
But that isn’t keeping West Lincoln from fighting for its second playoff appearance.
“It’s a tough conference with the new realignment. It’s going to be a tough conference this year, but I think we’ve got a good core of kids that work hard and we’re just excited and hopefully just show that it wasn’t a fluke last year of making the playoffs.,” Riley said.
Riley, a 1992 graduate of West Lincoln and a former head football coach, said last year’s 2-0 loss to a team that reached the fourth round last season was more than enough motivation for this season.
“It really does motivate them. At the end of the game, it was evident that they were upset because they didn’t win,” Riley said. “Coming into this year, wanting to get back into the state playoffs, and winning a game. Not just one game, but try and make a good push in the state playoffs.”
Knights in a rebuilding year: North Lincoln went 14-8-1 and finished second in the SPC1A/2A last season. But after losing 12 seniors –– eight starters –– the Knights are just hoping to compete in 2013.
“It’s a rebuilding year for us. We’ve got a lot of young kids this year.” second-year head coach Tim Corvin said. “That kind of hurts us a little bit.”
North Lincoln, which opens the season at home against St. Stephens on Tuesday, advanced to the second round of the state playoffs for the first time in school history last season. The Knights started the year 7-0 and were ranked seventh in the state at one point.
But the former all-american football player from San Diego who played soccer in Europe for three years (1984-86) is just hoping his team can make a little leeway as a 3A school this year.
“This year is going to be a rebuilding year for us, but I think we’ve got some talent that, we’re going to surprise some people,” Corvin said. “I’m hoping North (Lincoln) will make some noise this year in the 3A.”
Corvin said junior Mitch Brown, who plays Academy soccer, and senior defensive mid Jacob Gordon are two players to watch this season. He also mentioned Kevin Garcia, a sophomore who can kick the ball well.
“He’s got some power in his foot,” Corvin said.
The Knights participated in East Lincoln’s jamboree last weekend, and although they didn’t win a match, Corvin liked what he saw.
“I think we’ll do well. I didn’t go (to East Lincoln) to win, I went there to see what the players could do.
“Hopefully we’ll make it to the playoffs this year, but moving up to 3A this year is going to be a little challenging for us.”
Eagles excited about playoff chances: Until this year, Lincoln Charter School was in a win-the-conference-title-or-go-home situation as far as qualifying for the playoffs.
That’s no longer the case.
The Eagles, who went 5-15-1 last season, have never qualified for the NCHSAA state playoffs. But this year they are a part of the Southern Piedmont 1A Conference, which includes three other private schools, along with Bessemer City, Cherryville and Highland Tech.
“Lincoln Charter is hoping for a competitive season and is looking forward to having the opportunity to qualify for the playoffs from a standard conference,” third-year coach Dane Perry said. “In the past it has always been that we had to win the conference or we didn’t go. Knowing that option of a wildcard gives you something to build toward as the season progresses.”
The Eagles, who open at East Lincoln on Tuesday, lost five seniors from last season but feel they will be strong on the defensive end.
Perry said he will rely “heavily” on a pair of seniors in Daniel Moore (six goals, two assists in 2012) and Danny Aguilar (four goals, two assists in 2012). The Eagles also return sophomore goal keeper Isaiah Smith, who had 97 saves and three shutouts in 2012.
“They will be crucial to our success,” Perry said.
As far as the new conference goes –– which includes Community School of Davidson, Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy and Pine Lake Prep –– Perry feels it will be a tough season for all team in the SPC1A.
“We expect to be in an extremely competitive conference from top to bottom and are looking forward to seeing how we fare,” he said.