PERKINSTON — Coach Chris Handy is a confident person, and he's one who's not known to dish out compliments for his Mississippi Gulf Coast men's soccer team easily.
This 2019 Bulldogs squad has him a pretty happy person.
"They're going to play some exciting soccer," he said. "They're very athletic and they can get up and down the field. We're very young at almost every position, so there may be some inconsistency. But as a group, they're super-talented, so really we don't have a ceiling on what they can accomplish."
The team launches its new season Thursday when East Central visits Bary Thrash Field. Kickoff is scheduled for 5 p.m. The game will be streamed at https://livestream.com/MGCCCBulldogs/events/8790318.
It'll be the Bulldogs' first action against another team after a pair of attempts to scrimmage NCAA Division III and NAIA schools fell through.
Gulf Coast will young this year, having only five sophomores returning. The newcomers will have to catch up with the speed of play, as well as the idea that losing the ball can quickly turn into goals other the other way.
"Both have as much potential as any defender whose walked in here," said Handy.
They'll be aided by returning defensive midfielder Luke Mills (So., Cedars Upper School/Leighton Buzzard, England). He's the key to bridging the attacking and defending players, and he's stepped into a leadership role with the young club.
"Isaiah is a super-athletic goalie, even though he's a bit small," Handy said. "He gives us some advantages through the run of play. His feet are going to help us keep possession. If we get ourselves in trouble at the back, we were just giving that ball away. Now, we can give it back to him and keep possession. Zach is a shot-stopper. He's shown the ability to keep the ball out of the net. I think those two will be able to play for us in any given game."
The attacking part of midfield and the strikers feature a lot of talent. Handy calls Christian Inchima (Fr., St. Edmond Campion/Brampton Ontario) the "first true center midfielder we've had here in a while," and he'll pair with Deon Travis (Fr., Madison Central/Madison), a big, strong physical presence. Kevin Morales (Fr., Harrison Central/Saucier) will also play into the midfield mix.
Handy calls up top "striker by committee," had he's got returner Cisco Thomas (So., Meadowvale Secondary/Mississauga, Ontario), international James Redmond (Fr., Oberschule Roter Sand/Bremen, Germany) and 40-goal scorer from high school Brandon Marquez (Fr., Petal/Petal) to call on.
All that offensive firepower immediately meshed, too.
"That's been the thing that's made preseason difficult," Handy said. "They picked up everything on Day 1, and it left us not having to work on a lot of stuff. Our outside backs will get forward, and our wingers will get back to cover for them. If you watch us play, they'll be in different places in five minutes. They've been given the responsibility to find matchups they like."
Chemistry hasn't been a problem with the new players, and Handy says there's no hangover with the sophomores. There have been plenty of smiles during a rugged camp, even when practices happened during the sweltering Gulf Coast weather.
He said the South again should be a three-horse race, with Pearl River and Jones also in the hunt for the state title. The Bulldogs need to rebound from a rare bad season that saw them miss the 2018 playoffs.
Fixing those issues required self-examination.
"Our response was to try to get better as a staff," Handy said. "We made an emphasis right after last season to bring more talent in. We worked really hard to do that.
"Even in preseason, we've changed some things. We've made the environment tougher to make the team tougher. They've responded well, to be honest. They've met every challenge, including not having a preseason game. It's a good group so far."
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