By Rick Atkinson


For the Anna-Melissa Tribune


MELISSA – Last season was definitely one to remember for Lady Cardinals soccer, now in its sixth year of existence.


That team - with Manuel Avila, the only head coach the program has ever had - stormed to its fifth-straight, undefeated district title, then on to its first-ever trip to the state tournament.


All told, the Lady Cards rolled to 21 wins, with one defeat and two ties.


While the magical season ended with a 2-1 loss to Liberty Hill in the state semifinals at Georgetown, this year’s Melissa squad appears poised to shake off that disappointment with another charge back to the Texas Hill Country in April.


Before getting into that, Avila spoke about last season’s record playoff run recently at Melissa High School.


“We felt like we could have a good year,” he said. “We felt optimistic about the year. To have what we did last year was truly special. I’m not going to say it was unexpected. We just didn’t really know how far we could go. It was a complete unknown. That’s what made it so much fun.


“Looking forward to this year, the expectation is just that much higher. We do know what we have. As as team, we have high expectations of ourselves. We kind of set a precedent, so it makes it challenging.”


Melissa’s season-opener is slated for today at the Liberty Hill tournament with the district-opener at home versus Anna on Feb. 10.


The Lady Cards lost three key players to graduation: goalkeeper Brittany Morgan, a three-time All-State and First-Team All-District pick; First-Team All-State midfielder Reagan Eichel, who was also a two-time District MVP; and Grace Tegerdine, a Second-Team All-District defender.


“Week in, week out you knew they were going to be there,” Avila said. “You knew that you could count on them. They were integral parts of our program. They each had a different role, but they really did a good job of doing what they were supposed to do. To speak of them separately but would be difficult. They really did a great job of leading.”


Morgan and Eichel both went on to play for Brookhaven College, a team that just won the Junior College Division III national championship.


Avila’s current roster includes four seniors and a bevy of experienced players across the pitch. The team starts this campaign ranked No. 1 in Class 4A Region 2, with state rankings not yet available.


At the attack end, Avila gets his starters back: sophomore Lucy Hurst, last season’s District Player of the Year and a First-Team All-State pick; sophomore Payton Wallace, the district’s Newcomer of the Year; and First-Team All-District senior Hanna Waters.


Hurst, who also made last season’s State All-Tournament team, rang up opponents for a team-high 33 goals as a freshman.


“She’s got tremendous feet,” Avila said. “She’s really talented as far as being able to do things with the ball that she wants to do. And, obviously, she’s extremely fast. But I’d still like to see her continue to grow. We saw some defenses in the playoff run that adjusted to her differently, that managed her differently. That’s the thing that she’s going to have to understand. … [Teams] are going to know who she is and what she does.


“Probably the one that’s going to move positions this year will be Hanna Waters. The first couple of scrimmages this year she’s played some forward, more midfields – in what we call an attacking midfield role.”


Avila recalled how these three worked well in different combinations last season as injuries benched Waters and Wallace at times. “They’re all really talented players and they make a huge difference for us.”


In the midfield, Avila said, “We’ve got so many pieces coming back it’s hard to name them all. You sub them in and don’t really miss a beat. In fact, in the first two scrimmages they’ve all played and played well.”


Starting outside mids for the Lady Cards will be Second-Team All-District junior Reese Reddick and First-Team All-District sophomore Macie Robertson. A leader in the center may be move-in junior Madelynn Castro, Avila said. “She’s probably the one who’s going to step up and fill Reagan’s spot and has really done a good job. … She’s a little thing but she is fierce.”


Other experienced returning midfielders include senior Genevieve Stopinski and junior Ellie Schaeffer.


Defensively, most everyone is back for Melissa as well. Sophomore Jenna Newkirk, who last year claimed First-Team All-District and Second-Team All-State honors, returns as the main cog in the back row. “I don’t see anybody else taking that role, beyond her,” Avila said. “She’s a really sound defender. … She’s probably one of the best in the business right now.”


First-team All-District defender Jenna Daniel, along with Second-Team All-District picks Briley Bowen and Cali Tenney, “all look good,” Avila added.


Stepping up from JV are sophomore defenders Madeline Kuehler and Bobbie Brosamine-Norton. Both saw varsity time during last season’s playoff run and are expected to make solid back-row contributions.


At goalkeeper, sophomore Anna Blankenship moves into the starting role. “She’s looked great so far,” Avila said. “She’s going to be the one. We’ll try to keep her healthy.”


Avila added that Blankenship got extensive experience last year and has played high-level club ball for some time. “For her, I think it’s a pretty seamless transition into goal at the high school level. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference in expectations [from Morgan as keeper]. … It’s not going to be new for her. It’s going to be continuing to learn to play with these girls.”


Slotted for back-up goalkeepers are junior Abbey Maldonado and freshman Katie Waite.


In discussing team strengths and challenges, Avila noted that his multitude of talent in the midfield can be both. The depth, clearly, is a strength, he said, but getting everyone adequate could be a challenge.


Avila added that defense should be a strength again as well. “We traditionally are very good, defensively. I don’t know that, necessarily, our attack will be weak but we’ve got to make sure that we continue to produce in the front. … People adjust to you and they adapt to the way you play. Now you’ve got make sure that you’re not just ‘status quo’ - you’re trying to change and fix and keep improving.”


Concerning the district race, Avila said he again expects another tough challenge from last year’s runner up, Celina. The Lady Bobcats start the season ranked No. 5 in Region 2.


Asked how reaching the state tourney’s big stage affected this year’s team, Avila said, “Honestly, I think they’re very, very hungry. You listen to them talk at practice and in the locker room, they know. I hate to say they’re humble about it, but that’s probably the best way to think about what their attitude is. They understand what they’ve accomplished but they’re also not satisfied. They set a precedent for themselves from last year. You ask them, that’s their goal, obviously - to do better.


“We’re not going to settle for what we thought worked. If we can find ways to improve, we’re going to be there at the end of the day. We will be there.”


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DISTRICT 9-4A GIRLS Predicted finish (not guaranteed)


1. Melissa


2. Celina


3. Anna


4. Gainesville


5. Bonham