ROCKINGHAM — Richmond Senior boys soccer coach Bennie Howard is excited about the upcoming season.
Despite finishing with a 5-12-2 mark a year ago, Howard is focused on a different set of numbers — 12-2-1.
That was the record of the junior varsity team last season. He understands the success may not translate to the next level, but he is hopeful.
“I’m putting my eggs in that basket,” Howard said. “I am hoping these rising sophomores and juniors make the transition to varsity and have the same confidence they had at junior varsity. They have brought that so far in practice.
“This is their time to shine. They will have the opportunity to do it for the next few years.”
The Raiders return nine letterwinners and only three starters on the 26-man roster this fall. For this reason, Howard is counting on his underclassmen.
Howard highlighted three players — Juan Onesto, Jalen Almond and Tad Hamilton — he hopes will provide them an offensive spark, which was lacking last season.
The midfield position is where Richmond’s strength could be this year. Howard quickly rattled off a handful of names making contributions during the preseason practices.
“Armando (Garcia) has scored some nice goals,” Howard said. “Josh (Swails) has done a good job of distributing the ball. Andrew (Balzer), Cole (Latta), Gary (Boyette), Juan (Franco) and Sergio (Zapata) have done a good job out wide with good crosses.”
As confident as Howard is about the strong play he expects from his forwards and midfielders, he admits he is unsure about his defense. Howard lost last season’s captain and his best defender, Greg Balzer, to graduation. The roster lists three senior defenders, but only one, Nic Ussery, was on the squad a year ago.
“They are going to have to play really tight in the back and not get all spread out,” Howard said. “Nic has been very vocal, they all really have been, but Nic has been more vocal than the rest.”
Four players will battle it out each practice to be the team’s starting goalkeeper. Howard said he plans on waiting until the last moment to see which one of his goalkeepers has the “hot hand.”
“I think it is going to be great for competition,” Howard said. “It’s going to be based on who’s hot the day before a game.”
With this shot of enthusiasm and confidence, Howard believes Richmond will once again be in the mix with Hoke County, Lumberton and Scotland to finish behind Pinecrest for the No. 2 seed and a home game in the state 4A playoffs.
“Pinecrest is probably ranked in the top 15 in the state as always,” Howard said. “Purnell Swett has improved since they have a rec league down in Pembroke now. You can’t just show up any given night and expect to win.”
The Raiders open the season at 7 p.m. Monday at the Ninth Grade Academy against Southern Lee. The junior varsity team will hit the field first against the Cavaliers at 5:30 p.m.
— Sports editor Shawn Stinson can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14, or by email at email@example.com