By Rick Pedone
Osceola won the Orange Belt Conference championship and was the only county team to advance to the soccer regionals last season.
The Kowboys, even though they lost several outstanding players, are primed to defend their conference title against a strong group of challengers.
Harmony, Osceola, Gateway, St. Cloud and Celebration all play in 5A District 9.
The Kowboys advanced to the regional quarterfinals last year under Coach Tom Bell, and although the team lost many of its top players to graduation, Bell said there still is plenty of returning talent to work with.
“Yessir, we’ve got some good ones returning. We’re going to by OK,” he said.
Four-year varsity starter Carter Richards, a midfielder, is back along with sophomore midfielder Dominic Fleming.
“They are really good players. Carter’s been with us a long time and he’s a good one,” Bell said. “Dominic has a lot of talent.”
The team also is set in goal, where senior Roberto Rodriguez returns after a strong junior campaign.
“We’re glad to have Roberto back. He’s going to do a good job for us,” Bell said.
The challenge will be finding someone to replace last year’s leading scorer, player of the year Alex Medina.
“I’m not sure right now who that will be, but we’ll find one,” Bell said.
Forward William Gamez, a senior, returns to bolster the attack at forward. Senior Hordy Nadambo returns as one of the Kowboys best defenders.
“We’ve got a good group of kids to build around, and we’ve got some good young ones coming up who will help,” he said.
Haines City beat OHS for the 5A-9 district championship last season and Bell said the Hornets most likely will be strong again this year.
“They have been for the past few years,” he said. “We’ll see. We’ve got some pretty good teams here in the county.”
Coach Dean Oliff returns for the Panthers, who hope to challenge for the conference and district titles.
“We had a small group of seniors last season, so I returned all but three (players) this year. We had a lot of solid young players, but they were lacking varsity experience,” Oliff said. “The intensity in training and the appetite to learn they have shown so far is hugely encouraging.”
Among the team’s leading returning players are senior Herman Florez, who captains the defenders from center back.
“He is the epitome of a modern defender and I expect good things from him,” said the coach.
Juan Flores and Alejandro Zuluaga return to the midfield after all-OBC campaigns last season, and forward Reynaldo Polar has college-potential, Oliff said.
Oliff added Matt Walusimbi from Texas to his coaching staff, which also includes Sagar Patel.
“The season never really ends for me, I’m always thinking ahead, and these guys are cut from the same cloth,” he said.
The Panthers play in district 5A-9, which is becoming increasingly competitive, Oliff said.
“Osceola County soccer programs have grown leaps and bounds over the past five or six years,” Oliff said. “The level of competition promises to be strong again.”
Coach Weylan Craig returns for the Bulldogs, who promise to be serious playoff contenders in District 5A-9, he said.
With eight returning starters and a strong goalkeeper in senior Matt Baran, Craig believes St. Cloud has the tools to get the job done.
“I believe we have the experience necessary to not only be competitive but to go that extra mile and win the (district) title,” the coach said.
Senior midfielders Gio Alexander and Markthomas Melendez are keys to the team’s success, Craig said, while Baran is coming back after an outstanding junior campaign. “As a senior, he is even better,” Craig said.
Strong play be defenders Brian Hellmer and Ian Merrill should take some of the pressure off Baran, he said.
Craig expects a strong challenge for both the district and Orange Belt Conference titles to come from Harmony and Osceola.
Coach Chad Boudreaux believes this team could be a regional playoff contender despite the loss of a dozen seniors from last season’s 11-8-1 club.
“This year could be a special one for Celebration High School,” he said. “After we lost 12 seniors, four signed scholarships, I thought it would be hard for us to put a team out there.”
But, more than 100 candidates showed up for tryouts, he said.
“Each player was picked to do a certain job for this team. There is no player that stands above the rest on the team. They are a unit of one; if you ask them they would tell you the same thing,” he said.
Boudreaux said that it will be a challenge for the team to advance.
“There are so many great teams in the conference and district. I ultimately hope that we continue to build this team to something that the school and community will get behind,” he said.
New Coach Daniel Joyner is piecing together the 2016-17 edition of the Eagles soccer squad almost from scratch.
“The boys know that I’m a new coach with new expectations for them and this program,” he said. “I’ve seen a small change in their work ethic and demeanor on the field and I hope that continues.”
The Eagles play in 3A-11, a four-team district spread from Wauchula Hardee County to Sebring to Lake Wales.
“My seniors are hyped up about this season and making it a good one to end their career. I hope we can achieve some success,” Joyner said.
Coach Michael Babin takes over the Chargers program this season and his goal is to instill passion and pride into the program.
“Our expectations we have for the upcoming year is to post a .500 record, reach the district semifinal and change the culture of our program,” he said.
He is counting on players such as Ziyad Bouchnafa, Brendon McConney, Luis Bolivar, Al Shareef and Abu Zanet to reach those goals.
The Chargers compete in district 4A-7 against seven Polk County teams.
Kyle Neenan, a former player at St. Cloud High, takes over the Longhorns program after Scott Marlega became the girls coach.
Neenan is enthused about his roster, which features several talented veterans.
“We have a great group of guys who are driven and hungry for the possibilities of this season,” he said.
Midfielder Michael Yma is one of the team’s playmakers, Neenan said, and Luis Jiminez and Sam Grace will spearhead the defense. Kiki Martinez is returning after a strong sophomore season. “His engine never stops,” Neenan said.
Josh Grieve, a 6-4 senior, is back in goal.
The Harmony coaching staff is a family affair. Kyle’s father, Mark Neenan, the longtime coach at St. Cloud, is an assistant and Kaleb Neenan, Kyle’s brother, is another assistant.
Coach Erica Bonilla leads the Tigers, who are led by seniors Justin Garcia (goalkeeper), Jimmy Faustin (midfield) and Eric Saucedo (midfield).
David Herrera, the team’s captain, is a junior.
The team’s top defenders include Kristopher Holmes and Julian Reyes.
The Tigers compete in District A-9. against Lakeland Santa Fe, Lakeland Christian and Winter Haven All Saints.