By Rick Atkinson, For the Anna-Melissa Tribune

MELISSA – It was a tough ending to last season for the Melissa Cardinals who finished 1-5-2 in district play – just one point back of Bonham for a fourth-seed playoff spot.

“Honestly, we made some mistakes coming down the stretch,” sixth-year Cards Head Coach Kelley Pitzer said recently at MHS. “And we had both our primary strikers at the time, Luke Hansen and Chris Perez, injured. That changes the dynamic of things. … That was a big hit for us.

“It was obviously disappointing. But I think in a lot of ways it was probably good for them to have that humbling experience, to not make [the playoffs], because it certainly made them hungrier this year to go out and do better things.”

Now atop Pitzer’s “do-better” list for the coming campaign: Score more goals. Though without Hansen and Perez much of last season, Pitzer still would like to have seen better point production from his remaining charges.

“We did not do a good job last year of scoring enough goals, of putting ourselves in position to score goals. … When push came to shove, we couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net. This year, with a change in a few things we’re doing, that’s been addressed.”

Other reasons for optimism this time around are a key core of returning Cards and an influx of new kids whom Pitzer says are making things competitive up and down the pitch. And those new faces have gotten plenty of work during preseason scrimmages, Pitzer noted.

Melissa’s new season starts today versus Bridgeport at the Gainesville tournament. For the district-opener on Feb. 10, the Cards host Anna.

Two key players lost to graduation this spring were center-back defender Travis Bishop and goalkeeper Winston Chawira. Bishop was a district Co-Newcomer of the Year while Chawira earned an All-District Honorable Mention nod. “Travis was very fast, very physical in the back,” Pitzer said, adding that Chawira, with about 90 percent of last season’s goalie time, was extremely athletic in the net.

Junior Hunter Tallichet takes over now as starting goalkeeper after playing back-up last season.

“Hunter is training extremely hard,” Pitzer said. “He wants to be successful, he wants to be good. … He got a few matches [last year], but he was always going to be the back-up.” When not in-net last season, Tallichet worked some at outside back.

Pitzer’s “first-choice back-up” to Tallichet is slated to be freshman Carson Gibbs, who’ll also get time at outside back.

As for that back row, Yobani Paulin - a Second-Team All-District pick and the Cards’ lone senior starter this year - will work middle-back with sophomore move-in Dylan Karman. Along with Gibbs, sophomore Jake Wicke and junior John Terzion will slot in on the outside.

On the attack end, Melissa takes a hit with Perez, a Second-Team All-District pick, moving away. But Hansen is back and “100-percent healthy,” Pitzer said. “He’s really playing well. … In both our scrimmages, he scored. And he’s done extremely well as far as the defensive side in the final third, pressing and really buying into the system that we’re using this year. And Luke is a guy I never have to worry about his grades – ever.”

Hansen will now be matched with juniors Octavio Barbosa and Jonathon Ollila. “Those three are the primary forwards right now that have really taken to playing up-front,” Pitzer said, “taking different roles up-front and learning to play off of each other. They’re eager to learn it.

“Luke’s going to be a catalyst up at the front because he wants to score goals. Unfortunately, we didn’t have him all of last season. He only played one match then got hurt again. In that one match, he scored two or three goals. … This year, being healthy, he’s working hard and he wants to make an impact. He wants to be a leader on the team. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”

Ollila and Barbosa move up-front from midfielder positions “for a little bit more of an attacking presence,” Pitzer said.

There’s good news in the midfield as First-Team All-District pick Eric Ramirez is back for his junior year and will lead a young set of Cards there. “He’s our catalyst in the middle of the field, hands down,” Pitzer said. “He has great vision. He’s one of my few players that play at a higher-level club and he sees the game a little bit differently. He sees the game a little bit faster.”

Junior Eli Schaeffer is also expected to be a strong midfield contributor. Injured for now, Schaeffer is expected back soon.

To summarize, Pitzer noted, “Defensively, I think we’re going to be pretty sound. The midfield, give them another three, four, five weeks, they’re going to be pretty sound as well. Then I’ve two or three strikers up-front that are working.”

The Cards have set a goal this season of going “several rounds deep” in the playoffs. “Obviously,” Pitzer said, “we’d all like to win it [all], but there has to be a starting point. For them, making the playoffs isn’t good enough. They’ve set the goal a little higher.”

Pitzer added, “I don’t want to set their goals. We can train them, we can put them out there, we can practice, but we’re not the ones playing anymore. Those goals have to be theirs and they have to take ownership.”

Looking at District 9-4A, Pitzer sees Celina holding a strong hand. “They were very good last year - we lost one against them, we tied one against them. But you can’t count out Gainesville. You actually can’t count out any of the teams in our district. … And one that’s always going to be good is Matt’s crew up at [defending district-champ] Anna. I think Matt [Ellis] is a great coach. He always finds the best in his kids.

“The last few spots in district last year were all just waiting for that last match to be played. When you have a district like that, it gives you a lot more hope for moving on in the future, in the playoffs, because you’re playing qualities sides. You’re not just walking through somebody at 12-nothing.”

Regarding the Cards’ future pipeline, Pitzer said Melissa’s middle school soccer program is going strong now. “It’s nice to have that grass roots approach, being able to see those kids when they’re young - seeing their abilities, what they can do and kind of give them that fire underneath them to want to play high school [soccer].”