ROCKINGHAM — After an “up-and-down season” with the boys program last fall, Bennie Howard is hoping to end his coaching career on a high note with the Lady Raiders this spring.
The Richmond girls soccer team officially kicks off the 2018 campaign next week with games at Union Pines (Wednesday, Feb. 28) and J.M. Robinson (Friday, Mar. 2). Howard hopes that getting off to a great start at the beginning of the year will lead his team to another winning season, which would be its third consecutive, when it’s all said and done.
“I feel like we’ve got the talent to compete and be in the upper echelon (of the conference),” Howard said. “We’ve got eight starters back from last year’s team, some good talent off the JV team and some freshmen that can play. So we expect to be at the top.”
The Lady Raiders will have to continue their upward trend without three of their five all-conference selections from a season ago, as former players Tatyana Gould and Cassie McFayden graduated and now-senior Altman Griffin — who recently committed to play volleyball at UNC-Wilmington — elected not to return in her last year.
Gould was a four-year starter who shared the conference’s Goalkeeper of the Year award following her junior season and finished with more than 100 saves in each of her final two years. McFayden, who now plays at Lees-McRae, recorded five hat tricks and came close to breaking the school record with 30 goals last season. Griffin’s length as the center back made her “a force to be reckoned with” in her three years with the program.
Junior Abbey Coward and sophomore Allexis Swiney will be splitting as the team’s goalkeeper in 2018, while Howard hopes there’s more than one girl who can pick up where McFayden left off. Junior striker Jessi Graham (12) and senior striker Hanna Millen (9) were second and third on the team, respectively, in goals score last season.
“When you have someone that’s your leading scorer like Cassie was, other teams seemed to concentrate on her more than everybody else. So if we can have four to five girls who can score 10, 12, 14 goals, that would be a positive for us,” he added. “I’m hoping that we’ve got some girls that can step up and put the ball in the back of the net.”
Other returners included junior midfielder Jayana Nicholson and sophomore defender Avy Lucero — the other two Lady Raiders named to the 2017 all-conference squad — and junior midfielder Morgan Hooks, whose double-overtime goal in the semifinal helped the team advance to the conference tournament championship game for the first time in more than a decade.
Also, the senior leadership from Kathleen Pittman matched with the reliablity of junior midfielders Emily Parsons and Chloe Wiggins will give Richmond a much more experienced group than it has had in recent years.
“I really am looking forward to going out and contending for a conference championship. I think we have the talent,” Howard said. “We’ll need a break here and there, and we’ll need to work hard in practice and let that carry over to games. If we can do that and put the whole package together, I think we’ll be fine.
“I want to go out with a smile on my face and enjoy every day to the minute,” he added.
Richmond won both of its preseason scrimmages, the latest one a shutout win over Douglas Byrd, and will compete in the Kicking for Cancer Jamboree at South View on Saturday.
Reach sports editor Leon Hargrove Jr. by phone at 910-817-2673 or by email at [email protected] For stories, scores and updates, follow the Daily Journal’s sports section on Twitter @RCDailySports.