PERKINSTON — Mississippi Gulf Coast has made great strides in Jackie Rhodes first two years in charge of the women's soccer program.
She's expecting another step forward this year, coming off an 11-win season.
"We are better than we were last year. We'll make another good run," she said. "We're looking to get past where we were last year. We want to get to the final game, and I think we're capable of doing that."
The Lady Bulldogs open play Saturday with a scrimmage at William Carey. Kickoff in Hattiesburg is at 5 p.m.
Gulf Coast finished 11-4-1 and claimed second in the MACJC South with an 8-2-1 mark. The Lady Bulldogs are 11-3-1 in their last 15 division games after surging to a strong finish in 2015, setting up a 2016 that saw the team host an MACJC playoff game.
The Lady Bulldogs scored 53 goals last year, more than doubling their 2015 output. Success in the offensive end should continue, with Rhodes bringing back four of her five attacking players.
"They're two players that want to score goals," Rhodes said. "They want to be up top in front of the goal. They're offensive players with a lot of pace that can get behind the defense. That's what we're going to try to do."
Longsden and Jess Shepherd (So., Parrswood/Manchester, England) tied for the team lead with 13 goals, and Shepherd added a team-high nine assists. She'll team with newcomer Summer Hansen (Fr., West Harrison/Gulfport) in attacking roles.
L.T. Massey (So., Oak Grove/Hattiesburg) scored six goals and had four assists last year in an attacking role. She'll slide back as a holding midfielder to provide experienced cover in front of a young back four.
"She's a sophomore and likes to be in control," Rhodes said. "She's vocal and she'll work hard in the middle. We need her there."
Brianna McCrory (So., East Central/Hurley), who had a goal last year, also figures to be a key contributor in midfield.
Riann Brock (So., Oak Grove/Hattiesburg) started 14 games last year. She'll be in charge of the defense from her center back position.
"She's going to have help us a lot this year keeping the defense organized," Rhodes said. "She's got a lot of good defensive players to work with."
Sarah Shepherd (So., Germantown/Germantown, Tenn.) had a goal and an assist last year as a forward, but she's joining Brock in the middle this year. She's picked up the position very quickly.
Outside of them will be a pair of freshmen, Curissa Beatty (Fr., Biloxi/Biloxi) and Bailey LaFontaine (Fr., Pearl/Pearl). They have speed to make up for mistakes, and Rhodes doesn't expect them to get beaten to the end line many times.
The last line of defense will be Haley Lott (Fr., West Harrison/Gulfport), who went 15-4-3 and helped her high school team to consecutive Class 5A state championship games.
"She really good on the ground. She's good on 1v1s," Rhodes said. "She's shorter than most keepers, so she's going to have to do a lot of extra things. We don't want those balls to go over her head, so she's going to have to come out and challenge. She's really going to have to challenge 1v1s and not sit back on that line."
Winning the MACJC South would go a long way toward ensuring a trip to the state championship game. Rhodes thinks the mix of talent is there to do that this year.
"We brought in enough kids to be competitive with Jones or Pearl River," Rhodes said. "This year, that title's up for grabs."
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