PERKINSTON — Mississippi Gulf Coast men's soccer coach Chris Handy and his players lost quite a bit of sleep after last year's disappointment in the MACJC state championship game.
The Bulldogs want to use that to stoke the fires this year while using a tough pre-conference schedule to build themselves to greater heights this season.
"There's two goals for me every season," Handy said. "One is to win, and two is to develop. Obviously, we're always trying to push guys to four-year schools. Part of that process is we have to play four-years to see where our guys are at and show them where they need to go to."
Gulf Coast opens preseason play Saturday with a scrimmage at William Carey. Kickoff in Hattiesburg is at 7:30 p.m. It's the first of three straight games against four-year schools, which will be followed by a trip to Texas to play defending national champion Tyler and national semifinalist San Jacinto-South.
The Bulldogs swept through the MACJC South Division with a perfect 10-0 mark last year. After earning the right to host the state tournament, they fell to Hinds in the finals. They went on to lose in the South District playoffs to Tyler, ending the season 15-3.
Handy has a sophomore-laden team returning, led by Jordan Hall (So., Royton and Crompton/Manchester, England). Hall finished the year as the nation's second-leading scorer with 28 goals in 18 games. He had a stretch of four consecutive hat tricks at one point, finishing with six on the season.
Hall won't catch anybody by surprise this season, but his relentless play can set up goals for himself and others.
"Jordan is ready to go.," Handy said. "He had a good summer of work. He's still deadly in front of goal. What we've got to do in the absence of James (Beattie) is to find a way to get him the ball. That's where Max and C.J. come in."
Max Johnson (Fr., Harris Church of England Academy/Rugby, England) and C.J. Smith (Fr., David Suzuki Secondary/Brampton, Ontario) will fit into what Handy refers to as midfield and attack by committee.
Caleb Counselman (So., Pass Christian/Pass Christian) returns after scoring six times last year, and Jeff Bruni Jr. (So., Gulfport/Gulfport) is a transfer from Division I Northern Kentucky. Oscar Loya Loya and Brayan Resendiz are a pair of Horn Lake freshmen who will fit into that mix.
A pair of experienced sophomores returns to anchor the defense. Case Sloan (So., Stone/Wiggins) cleans things up on the back line. Windham Whatley (So., Florence/Florence) will play holding midfield or defender, but he wields tremendous influence up and down the field.
Handy named him captain last year, a rare decision. It's one he's growing more and more pleased with.
"He has earned it, and he continues to earn it," Handy said. "He came back ready to go. I found myself more impressed with him, and I didn't think I could become more impressed."
Gulf Coast is adding talent and experience at keeper. Owen Betz (So., St. Stanislaus/Pass Christian) is another Northern Kentucky transfer. He played eight games there last year after leading the Rockachaws to three straight state championships.
"We hope he brings some consistency," Handy said. "He's somebody we can rely on back there. He's got good size and has played at a high level for a long time."
With a stocked roster, he's anticipating another successful season. Handy knows nothing is guaranteed but hopes the end of last season prods his crew to a great 2017.
Regardless, what he wants remains the same.
"It's always the same, isn't it," Handy said. "To be in the final and hopefully win the final. If that's not your goal or expectation, then why are you doing it."
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