Head coach: Matt Ellis, 4th year

2017 record: 9-12-2, 2-4; third place District 5-4A; lost to Dallas Life Oak Cliff in regional quarterfinals

District mates: Argyle, Melissa, Gainesville

Key players lost to graduation: Ryan Hoverson, Johnny Alvarado, Miguel Jaramillo, Alexis Martinez, Andre Joyce, Javier Segura (foreign exchange student)

Key returning players: Kevin Garcia, Jose Flores, Isaac Nino, Carlos Garrido, Jerrod Roberts, Kaleb Stewart

Key newcomers: David Joaquin, Phillip Henson, Meny Huete, Carlos Zamudio, Bryan Penaflor, Gustavo Martinez

Season-opener: Thursday, Jan. 4, versus Lebanon Trail at Princeton Tournament

District-opener: Monday, Feb. 12, versus Argyle at home

ANNA — A memorable benchmark was reached last season by Coach Ellis and the Coyotes: Their come-from-behind 3-2 overtime win over District 7-4A-champion Castleberry was the program’s first-ever playoff victory.

“That Castleberry team was a good team,” Ellis says. “For us to get our first-ever playoff win and it be against a district champion and to do it in the way we did … there were kids with tears in their eyes afterwards. It was something big for those kids. It was something that showed us that this is something we can do.”

And while that win was sweet, Ellis adds that his team also felt the other end of the post-season spectrum a week later in a late 2-1 loss to highly-touted Dallas Life Oak Cliff. “The group really found out a lot about themselves and used it positively. Hopefully, we build upon that this year.”

Noteworthy also from that campaign is the fact that the Coyotes overcame an extended midseason slump to finish strong. “There was a stretch there when I think we lost seven games in a row,” Ellis says. “Seven of our twelve losses were all in a row. We were really struggling. But we pulled it together at the right time — a little bit late into district — but as the season went on we built confidence. The guys really figured out their roles.”

Foremost among returning Coyotes, Ellis says, is junior All-District midfielder Isaac Nino. “He is extremely creative on the ball, very skilled. And he really links between our defenders and our forwards. He’s the cog that keeps the ball moving forward. He’ll be crucial for us this year.” Junior forward Carlos Garrido, the team’s leading scorer the last two seasons and 2017’s district Offensive MVP, is also back along with All-District picks Kevin Garcia at midfield and forward Jose Flores.

A key challenge for Anna will be inexperience in the back four and at goalkeeper. Gone now are veteran defenders Ryan Hoverson, Johnny Alvarado, Alexis Martinez and Andre Joyce, as well as All-District midfielder Miguel Jaramillo. Also, solid goalkeeper Javier Segura — an exchange student from Spain — is back in Madrid. “We knew we were only going to have him for one year,” Ellis says. “He was definitely a key loss. … We only return one defender (from the back four) that started in our two playoff games and we’ll be starting the season with two inexperienced players in goal. Building continuity with that group will be key to our success this year.”

Important to solidifying that back four will be junior All-District defender Jerrod Roberts and senior Kaleb Stewart. “They’re the two (returning players) that got consistent time at defender last year,” Ellis says. “Jerrod is the only one returning that started in the playoff games. He’s really got to help us bring in the new guys and get us organized and linked together.”

Newcomers who should also help stabilize the defense are juniors Carlos Zamudio, Bryan Penaflor and Gustavo Martinez.

At goalkeeper, Ellis is calling on sophomore David Joaquin and freshman Phillip Henson to step up. “They’re going to split time early on,” Ellis says, “and one of them will win the job. That’s how we’re going to have to play it. Those two guys are going to have to grow up quick.”

Another potential challenge for the Coyotes is this: “Logistically,” Ellis says, “we will be dealing with construction at the stadium which could alter practice schedules and possibly some games.”

As for team strengths this season, Ellis notes, “We return a majority of our midfield and forwards from last year and they’ve gotten stronger — especially Isaac Nino and Jose Flores. We have looked solid during training with our link and creative play. … We lost Miguel, but our attacking players, we’ve just gotten stronger and more confident and more experienced.”

Ellis looks for a tight district race. “Argyle will be strong as usual,” he says, “but I believe they will come back to the group. They lost some very talented players and I believe the rest of our district is improving. I would not be surprised to see all four teams separated by a couple of points. Picking up three points in all of your home matches will be crucial. Stealing some points on the road will make the difference.”

Anna starts the season ranked sixth in Class 4A Region I by the Texas Association of Soccer Coaches and its schedule features top Region I and II teams: from Region I, No. 1 Bridgeport (scrimmage) and No. 4 Argyle (twice); from Region II, No. 2 Carrollton Ranchview, No. 8 Ferris (scrimmage) and No. 10 Sunnyvale.

The Coyotes also play seven Class 5A schools in preparation for district play. “We really wanted to challenge ourselves during the preseason in hopes of being better prepared for a deep playoff run,” Ellis says. “Our minimum goal is a trip to the regional tournament.”

That’s a minimum goal, Coyote fans. This season could indeed be special.