Fans of North Texas high school soccer know: It’s time to get those hats, coats and gloves ready — another chilly foot-loose season is upon us! And this season, Melissa and Anna boys and girls will again compete in District 5-4A, against the same district foes: Gainesville, Argyle and Celina. (Celina currently fields only a girls team.)

Some readers may not know that soccer is a relatively new sport for the Coyotes and Cardinals. Anna is preparing for its sixth varsity soccer season as Melissa gears up for its third. And, interestingly, both programs were started by the same pair of coaches. Read on to learn more about that, and also see what the head coaches have to say about this year’s teams. (And you may even learn a little about how to watch soccer!)

Anna girls

Head coach: Scott Turner, 1st year

Lady Coyotes’ 2016 record: 7-16-1 / 2-6 district; lost to Melissa in regional-quarterfinal playoffs

Key returning players: Addison Goudy, Liz Spivey, Breana Martin, Angelica Armijo, Emily Hanna, Alexandra Schofield, Paige Brunson

Season-opener: Tues., Jan. 10, at North Lamar

District-opener: Fri., Feb. 10, vs. Celina

Head coach Scott Turner arrived on Anna’s scene in July, after two seasons as an assistant coach for girls soccer at McKinney North. Prior to that, he had eight years of coaching experience in the collegiate ranks, including four years as men’s and women’s head coach at Northwood University, an NAIA school in Cedar Hill, Texas, and three as an assistant at UT Dallas. But Turner says perhaps his most important coaching year was spent as what he terms a “low-level assistant” to renowned coach Schellas Hyndman at SMU, when Turner was fresh out of Missouri State in 1998.

“He was just a tremendous mentor,” Turner says of Hyndman. “In terms of studying a coach, he’s one of the best in the nation. It was the best decision I’ve made to get mentored, to learn from.” Turner now hopes to translate some of Hyndman’s teaching into Lady Coyote success in District 5-4A. “The only thing that I’ve been told is that it’s a pretty competitive district,” Turner says. “Where we are on that, I don’t know. For me, I’m learning a lot, being new, coming in, but I don’t know where we’ll stand.”

Providing senior leadership for Anna this season will be Addison Goudy and Liz Spivey at the defender/midfielder and forward/midfielder positions, respectively. “We also have some excellent freshmen that have come in,” Turner said, “and we’re looking to see how they do in competition. I think for us, the biggest part will be when we get them in game situations. We have a scrimmage to open the season and then our first tournament. Once we get through the two tournaments, I think that will tell us more about our players than just the practices. I’ve spent most of the time trying to get to know the players in practice but I really will get to know them better in a game environment.”

“I tried to schedule difficult opponents because I feel that if you’re fortunate enough and your team plays well enough to advance [in the playoffs] … you hope you’ve exposed them to something that they will see in the post-season.”

Turner says he has gleaned from practices so far his team’s possession ability. “We’re starting to get more consistent there. The second level is going to be, can we play faster? We’re hoping to build on that foundation of possession and proceed to sustain. Then, can we possess the ball at a faster speed, and get forward and create chances?” He says he has also witnessed the Coyotes’ willingness to “play aggressively.” “We like that competitive edge to them. There’s a little bit of spark to the players and we want to encourage that.”

Turner notes that a good soccer player must possess both skill and soccer intelligence. “Skill is something that’s developed over time,” he says. “It’s your touch on the ball, the control of the ball. Most players that have a high level of skill are the ones that influence the scoreboard.” The other part, soccer intelligence, includes seeing “the right pass” and playing “smart.”

Soccer fans who come out, he says, should embrace the effort and technique required to have a chance at a goal, not just the goal itself. “Soccer, generally, isn’t a high-scoring game. It certainly happens. Look at the Women’s World Cup when [the U.S.] played Japan. They had a fantastic final, and a goal explosion. But those explosions are a little more on the rare side. … That’s why when you watch at the professional level and you see the goal celebrations - how much passion there is - it’s because the players know just the skill and the art it takes to score a goal.”

Turner says he sees a lot to celebrate as head coach of the Lady Coyotes. “The Anna administration and the teachers here have been fantastic, and it’s been an awesome place for me to get started.”

Anna boys

Head coach: Matt Ellis, 3rd year

Coyotes’ 2016 record: 11-8-3 / 3-2-1 district; lost to Diamond Hill-Jarvis in area-round playoffs

Key returning players: Carlos Garrido, Ryan Hoverson, Isaac Nino, Kevin Garcia

Season-opener: Thurs., Jan. 5, vs. Bonham (Princeton Tournament)

District-opener: Mon., Feb. 13, vs. Argyle

Head coach Matt Ellis welcomes back a team ranked among the Top 10 in Class 4A Region I by the Texas Association of Soccer Coaches. “We were young last year,” Ellis says. “It was a weird year because we had eight seniors and eight freshmen, and then a smattering of juniors and sophomores. Aubrey Bradshaw was a four-year starter here, a really defensive-minded center-mid who helped control the game for us. So he was a loss for us. Then we lost our starting goalkeeper and three of my four defenders. The backside, defensively, for us is where we’re trying to adjust and rebuild and get some players acclimated to playing there.”

“We bring back almost our entire midfield-slash-forwards. So, really, kind of adjusting to our new back four and goalkeeper are our biggest changes from last year.”

Ellis has these thoughts on the 2017 district race: “Argyle went to state last year and lost in the semi-finals, so they’re always a solid team. I think this year the district is going to be really balanced. Everybody has lost a little bit, everybody has gained a little bit. I wouldn’t be shocked to see any team win the district and I wouldn’t be shocked to see any team finish last. I think that’s how tight it will be on the boys side this year.”

A key returning player for the Coyotes is sophomore Carlos Garrido, the team’s leading scorer last year with 12 goals and an Honorable Mention All-State pick. “I’m expecting a lot of things out of him,” Ellis says. Another welcome sight for Ellis will be senior Ryan Hoverson, the team’s lone returning starting defenseman, whom Ellis hopes will “help gel our back four together.” Midfielders Kevin Garcia and Isaac Nino are two other key returning Coyotes.

“I think going forward and attacking, we should be solid,” Ellis says. “We had a year of chemistry together. We lost a couple of players, but a lot of the players that are stepping to fill the roles of those starters that left got significant playing time last year. … Practice-wise, we’ve looked really solid attacking, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re in a lot of shoot-outs this year, with multiple goals – especially early in the season.”

Ellis says getting his defenders “linked” with center-midfielders is always a challenge the way the Coyotes play, and this season will be no different. “It’s a lot of communicating and knowing where your teammate is going to be. … It’ll take some time and it’ll take some games for us to see real pressure and understand where we need to make adjustments. But I think we’ll get there relatively quickly.”

Anna’s boys program includes a junior varsity team, and it is currently the only one among Melissa and Anna soccer programs. Ellis calls the benefit “massive.” “Especially if you have someone on board as an assistant who can help use the ideas that you have and get them into those younger kids. … To continue the development there is huge.”

So how should fans who aren’t familiar with soccer watch these matches? “I think the biggest thing is, notice everything off the ball,” Ellis says. “Don’t just focus on the ball. I think a lot gets lost in just waiting for the ball to hit the back of the net. There are so many times where there are great runs and great decisions off the ball from players who can see the game before it’s coming to them, before the ball even gets there. If you pay attention to that, and the movement and those things, I think you will see a much more fluid game.”

Melissa girls

Head coach: Manuel Avila, 3rd year

Lady Cardinals’ 2016 record: 20-7-1 / 8-0, district champs; lost to Abilene Wylie in regional-semifinal playoffs

Key returning players: Amanda Kocsis, Brittany Morgan, Kendall Bates

Season-opener: Thurs., Jan. 5, at Paris

District-opener: Tues., Feb. 7, at Argyle

Girls head coach Manuel Avila and boys head coach Kelley Pitzer started Melissa’s soccer program just two seasons ago. Both arrived at MHS from Anna, where they also started the Coyotes’ varsity program in 2011. “We’ve been together for six years,” Avila says. “It fit. It was right.” It follows that the pair run Melissa’s boys and girls programs basically as one unit, with both coaches on the sidelines for all matches. The two also effectively share practices.

Avila’s Lady Cards open the season ranked among the top five Class 4A teams in Region I by the Texas Association of Soccer Coaches. He sees District 5-4A shaping up like this: “Competition-wise, we’ve got two teams that are really, really good in our district. Argyle was picked this year, I believe, sixth in the state. They’re No. 3 in our region right now and they’re picked to do well. … Celina was young last year and they return every player. They’re going to be good again. They’ve got a U.S. National team player on their team in Haley Berg.”

Under Avila, Melissa reached the regional finals in its inaugural season and returned to regional semi-finals last year. “We hope to go back and improve on our performance. It’s going to be tough.” The Lady Cards must replace some standouts from last year, Avila says. “I lost a couple of good ones. One of them was my center-back, my starting defender, Elise Hawn. She graduated and is at Oklahoma State this year. I lost a couple of other seniors, but they were out for a little bit for injury, so she was one of my key starters that I really lost.”

As for top returning players, Avila says, “I think most people in the district know about Amanda Kocsis.” Kocsis, in two seasons, is second in Melissa’s record book with 87 career goals. “I expect her to break the school record this year. She’s got three [goals] to do that, so that should be pretty easy. … And we’ve got the top goalkeeper in the state, Brittany Morgan. A lot of people know about her too. Those are a couple of kids who are going to be really important for us and give us something to look forward to.”

Avila says a strength for Melissa could be its midfield, but he hesitates to say one part of the team’s play is best. “I want to see how my young defenders step up and how they do. We’ve always been a pretty good, solid team. … I can’t say one [area] is better than the other. This year is no different. The team is going to be good and I expect good things.”

As for challenges, Avila says being relatively young this year may provide one, adding that he’ll have five freshmen on his traveling A-team. “It’s always tough for freshmen to step in and really play above their means. They’re used to playing with kids their age and now they’re going to step up and play with kids three or four years older than they are. … How they handle it, that’s going to be the answer. If they can go in and handle it, then it’ll be a good year. If they struggle, then we will struggle.”

So what makes a good soccer player? “More than anything else, especially on the girls side, it’s not necessarily about just being physical,” Avila says. “It’s about heart and determination a lot of times. You do have to have some athleticism, as opposed to boys athleticism, but it doesn’t take you as far. You really have to have some grit, you have to have the want.”

“We know what we have in front of us,” Avila says of the Lady Cards’ 2017 slate. “We’ve just got to take care of our business.”

Melissa boys

Head coach: Kelley Pitzer, 3rd year

Cardinals’ 2016 record: 1-5 in district; lost to Alvarado in area-round playoffs

Key returning players: Josh Love, August Greer, Jose Malpika, Dane Hansen, Elijah Mackey, Erasmo Paulin

Season-opener: Mon., Jan. 9, at Denison

District-opener: Tues., Feb. 7, at Argyle

Head coach Kelley Pitzer says while the Cardinals lost some “really good team players” from last year - players “who made thing happen,” like midfielder Fernando Diaz and forward Haggai Dillashaw - he brings back a wealth of starters. Among them are Josh Love, last year’s Goalkeeper of the Year from District 5-4A, defender August Greer and forward Jose Malpica, both First-Team All-District picks last season. Experience is also back in midfielder Dane Hansen and defenders Elijah Mackey and Erasmo Paulin, he notes.

When asked about team strengths for 2017, Pitzer quickly points to one thing. “Honestly,” he says, “the strength is they’ve grown as a team. They’ve learned how to play together a little bit better. They’re not so hyper-focused on one player who graduated. So it’s a team approach, they’ve really learned to work together. To me, that’s growth.”

He says the four teams the Cards will face in this district are “pretty even.” “Before we formed a 4A district [two seasons ago] … we were playing the likes of McKinney and [McKinney] North and Frisco and Prosper and Little Elm. And it was very difficult. It’s been a real great thing for schools our size. We’re not playing up against schools that have 2,000 - 2,500 kids in them, where you might have 175 come out for soccer. I’ve got 25-26 kids, that’s it.”

Besides speed, endurance and agility, Pitzer says a key ingredient to a soccer player’s success is being able to “see” the game. “What I mean by that is, think of it as a chess match, but it’s a moving chess board,” he said. “You have to be able to see the game and see it progress, almost before it happens. And if [players] start to understand that and see the game very well, then you see great things happen. If they don’t, you don’t.”

Pitzer says looks forward to when Melissa’s program can support a junior varsity squad. “It’s a struggle,” he says, “because you’ve got some kids out there, some very talented younger players, some freshmen and sophomores, that really do have some skills, but they may not have the size yet. And they don’t have the body strength to be extremely fast, because they’re freshmen. They’re fourteen years old versus an 18-year-old kid. … That’s why we’d love to have a sub-varsity [team], but being in our third year, we just don’t have the numbers yet.” He adds that a middle school program has started and that will help.

Since the boys and girls play on the same nights at the same locations once district play starts, it makes it easy for him and Avila to coach at both games – and they do. Says Pitzer, “The way our district works, is half the games the boys start first at 5:30 and the second half they start at 7:15 — and they flip-flop half-way through district. It works out well. That way the parents get to at least make half the games if they have to work late.”

Pitzer’s advice to fans? “Bundle up. It’s cold.” He adds that he’s been impressed with Melissa’s fan base. “It can be 35 degrees out there and we will have fans in the stands. And we have a lot of students that come out and watch our games. We’ve got support.”