By Rick Atkinson

For the Anna-Melissa Tribune

ANNA – Sixth-year Anna head coach Matt Ellis and the Coyotes reached new heights last season, claiming the program’s first-ever outright district title with an undefeated run through 9-4A to boot.

And we mustn’t forget that the memorable campaign was replete with team records: most wins (13), most goals scored (47), fewest losses (five), most shutouts (seven) and greatest goals differential (18).

To top it off, the Coyotes also celebrated their first two college signings: forward Gavin Reno and defender Jerrod Roberts, both All-Region and First-Team All-District picks. Roberts now plays for Austin College and Reno - Anna’s leading scorer last season - is at Northern Oklahoma College.

“It was great,” Ellis said recently at Anna High School. “That group was the first where I had several kids that were on varsity from freshman through senior year. I think that continuity helped build that group and helped us achieve those goals and that district title. They knew what to expect from me from the get-go. … And I had good leadership with that senior group. We really took control of the district early. We were connecting very well and found the back of the net pretty regularly, early on.”

Only one thing could’ve been better concerning that district championship, Ellis noted. “We didn’t do it while we were playing. We found out we won district when I was out scouting another game. It was awesome - but at the same time we weren’t able to celebrate it after a victory. It was just different.”

Of course, Ellis and the Coyotes will take it – and now they look ahead to a possible second title. Besides Reno and Roberts, other key players lost to graduation were midfielder Isaac Nino, the District MVP and a First-Team All- Region pick; First-Team All-District forward Carlos Garrido, a two-time leading scorer; and Second-Team All-District midfielder Juan Velazquez.

“That’s a lot to lose,” Ellis said. “That’s why that group was so successful - lots of experience and leadership, and the moment never got too big.”

This time around, the Coyotes’ midfield appears to be a team strength going in. Senior Jesus Garrido, a First-Team All-District pick last year, leads an experienced crew including juniors Meny Huete and Yahir Inzunza, both named Second-Team All-District last season.

“Jesus and Meny, those two really hold down our midfield right in front of our defenders and link with our forwards,” Ellis said. “Those two guys are going to be key. I’m expecting a lot out of Yahir, too. He’s going to kind of move in to fill where Isaac played last year. He’s really smart on the ball.”

Then, senior Juan Morales - the District Utility Player of the Year - and sophomore Alex Granados - up from JV - will allow more options here, Ellis noted.

“I have flexibility to move players around in our midfield to either exploit weaknesses or attack if we’re in a situation where we need to find a goal. And there are some freshmen I expect to step up this year and potentially start. … Flexibility in attacking positions, especially in the midfield, is really the biggest strength of ours.”

Ellis called his back row “a work in progress,” with one starter returning, senior Peter Tenorio. “We’re trying to look at guys and find the best pairings and matches - not just defending but also linking play to get us moving forward into the attack. … Anthony Melendez is one of the guys I’m looking at as a starting defender. And we have freshman Maddox Mahart, who looks like he’s trying to slot himself him into a starting spot. … As we get going I think that group will grow in confidence and get more comfortable playing with each other.”

In net, the Coyotes look solid with senior First-Team All-District goalkeeper David Joaquin back, as well as junior backup Philip Henson. “David played really well last year and, really, it’s his spot to lose,” Ellis said. “I expect him to come out of the gate and take control of it. But I know if something happens to David, Philip is there to step in. We’re in a good spot right now.”

Ellis said Joaquin’s confidence has surged since the beginning of last season. “Just that alone has allowed him to be more fundamentally sound. He also moves laterally better than he did to get to balls that he wasn’t reaching in the past.”

As for Henson’s upside, Ellis said, “He communicates really well in letting the guys in front of him know what he wants. And his distribution is one of his strengths.”

Having lost both starting forwards from last year, Reno and Garrido, “We might have to change our system, the way that we play,” Ellis said.

He added that he expects Second-Team All-District sophomore Diego Banda, who played some forward last year but was mostly at outside mid, to fill one of those roles. “It’s where he’s most comfortable playing anyway, but he was kind of behind Carlos and Gavin. … I expect him to have a strong year up-top for us.”

Ellis is also looking at some freshmen to “contribute heavily” in attack, including Juan Diaz, Jesse Contreras and Jose Juan Espinoza. “Then throwing Juan Morales up top,” Ellis said. “I just think I have a lot of flexibility to help negate those issues, attacking-wise anyway.

Asked about team goals this season, Ellis said, “We want to defend our district title. We’ve never been in a position where we’ve had to defend our title and had the target on our back, so to speak. … And we want to make the regional tournament. It hasn’t been done here. We know Region 2 is incredibly difficult. I think it’s probably the toughest region to navigate, especially our path in Region 2.”

That region includes tough North Dallas, Hillcrest and Midlothian Heritage squads. It was eventual state-finalist Midlothian Heritage that defeated Anna in last season’s area playoffs after the Coyotes had topped Faith Family in a bi-district thriller.

Regarding the district race, Ellis said, “Depending on breaks, then the growth of the young guys, I think it’s a very balanced district. It was pretty balanced last year too. … I wouldn’t be shocked if we battled and competed for another district title. But it’s also so tight that if we have one bad game we could slip from second to fifth place and miss the playoffs. … You only play eight [district] games and every one of them means so much as far as points. One game can completely flip the standings.”

Ellis noted that Bonham and Melissa are improving, and second-place Celina - with its first-ever boys’ team - was “really solid” last year. “We beat them, 1-0, and tied, 1-1. It’s not like we ran through them. And Gainesville, they have so many kids. They’re reloading every year.”

The Coyotes open the season today versus Class 5A Wichita Falls Rider at the Princeton tournament. Defense of their district championship begins at Melissa on Feb. 10. ________________________________________________________________


Predicted finish (not guaranteed)

1. Anna

2. Celina

3. Gainesville

4. Melissa

5. Bonham