PERKINSTON — Last year's Mississippi Gulf Coast women's soccer team reached the MACJC championship game, so the question everybody wants to know is if this year's Bulldog squad might do the same.
"I think with last year's group, it was a good group," Gulf Coast coach Jackie Rhodes said. "I think this year's group is a good one, too, but it's just going to take some more time to gel and get to that point. We could very well wind up playing for a state championship again."
Gulf Coast opens the season Thursday when East Central visits Bary Thrash Field. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. The game will be streamed at https://livestream.com/MGCCCBulldogs/events/8790318.
The 2018 team went 7-7-2 and upset No. 10 Holmes on the way to the state title game. Nine sophomores return from that team, but Rhodes will be counting on lots of freshmen to be vital contributors.
She expects the team to follow in the steps of her past units. The Bulldogs are known as a group that's tough to break down. She expects a slew of close games, and she wants her team to take pride in the stinginess.
"We have mainly been focusing on our defensive efforts," Rhodes said. "That's what we've been harping on all preseason, making sure we're solid back there because we've put in a new system. If we're not defensively sound back there, it won't work for us."
Chloe Fell (So., Woodhey/Bury England) returns and slides back to a central defense role, where her soccer IQ provides a challenge to attacking players. A true six-footer, she'll also move forward on set pieces to provide a big target or to take free kicks when they are within shooting range.
"That's a big move for us defensively," Rhodes said. "She's a big center back, and I think teams are going to have a lot of trouble getting through her. We're looking for her to anchor the defense and give directions back there."
Protecting Kaylee Van Norman (So., Hartfield Academy/Brandon), the only keeper on the roster, will be important for the Bulldogs this year.
Hannah Helms (So., Southaven/Southaven) will play just ahead of that backline in a defensive midfielder role. On the right side, Paris Payne (So., Southampton Foundation/Southampton England) gives Gulf Coast opponents something to worry about going forward.
She looks ready to form a formidable attacking partnership with Bettie Shoemaker (Fr., St. Martin/Vancleave), who has great skill with the ball at her feet. Early on, they understand how utilize their interplay to open up defenses.
"She and Paris Payne work really well together," Rhodes said. "We're looking for those two to combine offensive. That's where I think we'll win some games."
Megan Brown (So., Home School/Picayune) is another sophomore who impressed with her improvement in the spring and this fall camp. Ivy Savell (So., Corinth/Corinth) is coming back from off-season surgery and will have to build up her playing time. Her smooth play in midfield will be important.
Chandler Cleveland (Fr., Terry/Byram) is a fast striker who will have the opportunity to score some goals once she's healthy.
The MACJC South figures to be as challenging as ever. The Bulldogs finished second in the division last year, and Jones and Pearl River figure to be as tough to beat as usual.
"The South is always going to have a good group of teams, top to bottom," Rhodes said. "I expect it to be a fight to the finish. Just to make it into one of those three playoff spots in this division is an accomplishment."
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