Head coach: Kelley Pitzer, 4th year

2017 record: 4-8-4, 1-5; 4th place District 5-4A; lost to FW Diamond Hill-Jarvis in Area playoff round

District mates: Gainesville, Anna, Argyle

Key players lost to graduation: Erasmo Paulin, Elijah Mackey, August Greer, Jose Malpica, Nick Lanier, Chris Medina

Key returning players: Josh Love, Dane Hansen, Cristhyn Venancio, Ulyses Convento Velez

Season-opener: Monday, Jan. 8, versus Denison at home

District-opener: Monday, Feb. 5, versus Argyle at home

MELISSA — While the Cardinals wound up fourth last season in four-team District 5-4A, they were in most all of their contests until late. Winning those tight matches this season is something Coach Pitzer and the Cards plan to make a priority.

“Honestly, I think, last season we had a lot of talent,” Pitzer says. “They just never really came together to get the wins when they needed the wins. We didn’t get just blown out in anything, but we had a lot of 2-1s, 3-2s, where we were on the losing end of it. And typically, it was the last 10 minutes of matches. We gave up a cheap goal that we shouldn’t have given up. This year, I think we’ll be a little bit better with that.”

Melissa will have to do it without a group of graduated seniors whom Pitzer says provided a good amount of “heart” to the team. All-District midfielder August Greer, who’s now studying at UCLA, is noted particularly by Pitzer. “I lost his command in the middle of the field,” he says. “I’ve gained it back but he was a three-year starter. When you lose that guy, it’s tough. He was the general of the field. He talked and people listened.”

Others gone include All-District defenders Chris Medina, Elijah Mackey and Erasmo Paulin — the district’s Co-Defensive MVP – as well as forward Jose Malpica and midfielder Nick Lanier, both All-District picks. “Now we have a lot of youth, a lot of freshmen and sophomores,” Pitzer says. “Not too many upperclassmen. But the upperclassmen I do have this year have definitely taken the reins, especially (defenders) Dane Hansen and Ulyses Convento Velez. And we’ve got Josh Love back, the three-time district Goalkeeper of the Year.

“With Josh Love returning that definitely puts a lot of strength between the pipes. He’s been trained with good, professional coaches throughout the years, high-level club coaches. And, honestly, he just has a knack for it. His fundamentals are spot-on, his fundamentals are sound — but it’s just his reactions. He’s very quick to the ball. The other thing is he sees the game well.”

Senior Cristhyn Venancio is also back, a top outside midfielder in the past and now a likely combo center-mid, outside-mid and striker. “He’s one of those players that I can put in any three of those spots.”

Hansen, an All-District selection last season, is going to be “the rock in the back,” Pitzer says. Convento Velez? “If I could have 11 Ulyses on the field, I would. And it wouldn’t be from natural talent. He is a talented player but he’s just got a lot of heart. He works extremely hard. You see that from his grades, you see how he interacts with his peers and the staff alike. He just carries himself extremely well.”

Asked about newcomers, Pitzer says he has several potential contributors. “I’m not sure who is going to get put in what spots yet. I’ll get through preseason first, kind of see who’s suited where best. But I have some freshmen that are really talented that work really hard. And I’ve got some sophomores and juniors that have stepped up this year for whatever reason. I think a lot of it is the fact that we have a few more players so they’re having to earn their spots a little bit more. This year we had a big group of freshmen. I want to say 12 freshmen — which is great. Even if they don’t get a lot of playing time this year they will as they get older because they’re going to be playing with these older boys. … The speed will be faster than they’ve ever seen before. That’s always a learning curve.”

“Thankfully,” Pitzer says, “I’ve got some kids that can really tackle and positionally play quite well.”

Another team strength, Pitzer says, should be how fast these Cards can move the ball. “They’ve really started working on connecting short, quick passes - moving up the pitch, instead of playing a direct ball or instead of playing that through ball. It’s connecting quickly, moving to space, defending as a unit. We’ve really stressed that since we started practicing - the importance of playing as a team. Everybody’s got a role, everybody’s got to do that role every single time.”

(Pitzer’s complete roster will not be available until after the team’s preseason scrimmages.)

The district race could very well be a slugfest, Pitzer notes. “Argyle is always strong. Anna had a really good team last year. And I think with another year of growth at Gainesville they’re going to be good too. If you look at all of us, I think we’re improving as a district. I don’t think we can pick one team over the other. Nobody in our district just ran away with it last year. Every match was a hard-fought battle - and that’s the way it should be.”

“Region I is pretty strong,” Pitzer adds, looking ahead. “Whoever makes it out of Region I has a real fighting chance [to advance to the state tournament]. Argyle proved that last year, making it all the way to the regional tournament.”

So strap in, Melissa fans — and watch for improvement by the Cards in those last 10 minutes.