A year ago five South Mississippi programs ended up vying for state championships with three bringing the golden ball back to the Coast.
Tuesday, more than 25 programs will embark on their respective playoff pushes with the ultimate goal within reach.
Going for No. 4
The Rockachaws of St. Stanislaus boast one of the state’s true dynasties, having won three consecutive Class 4A championships under Ryan Joiner’s leadership. Even after Joiner moved across the Coast last offseason to lead the playoff-bound Ocean Springs Lady Greyhounds, the Rocks haven’t lost a step. If anything, they just reloaded with new coach Danny Patton calling the shots.
“It has definitely been a learning experience,” said Patton who previously coached select soccer before serving as Joiner’s assistant last season. “Coaching high school is a completely different animal, but when you step into a program like St. Stanislaus where excellence is the only option, we don’t have time for down years.
“Those are big shoes to fill, to say the least.”
SSC, which opens the postseason Tuesday, graduated difference makers in Austin Miller, Owen Betz and Dustin Bosch, among others, but have found new leaders in 2016-17.
Chiefly, Corbin Blanchard and Ismael Khouma have led the attack with Andrew Elkins handling the back end with Beau Rimmer controlling the midfield.
“We had to re-define us this year because we lost so many seniors,” Patton said, “but now we’re rolling and have momentum at the right time.”
Luck of the Irish
Like St. Stanislaus and Stone, St. Patrick begins its bid to repeat Tuesday. The Fighting Irish made it through the regular season unscathed. Coach Mario Camps credits the team’s buy-in philosophy for their unblemished record.
“The key this year has been the team has really come together as a team,” he said. “It has really helped us a great deal, versus having some great players who are doing their own thing.
“Of course we have the guys who score, but it’s a byproduct of all the work done in the defensive end and midfield.”
St. Patrick has plenty of confidence heading into Tuesday’s opener against Clarkdale, but Camps has warned his players not to get full of themselves.
“Once you get into the playoffs everyone is competition. It can go either way,” he said. “You have to play hard and stick to your plan.”
Greyhounds on the run
The Greyhounds have had an overwhelmingly successful regular season but now the tough work begins.
MaxPreps.com’s national rankings actually have Ocean Springs third in the country (St. Patrick is No. 24). Madison Central, the perennial Class 6A contender and by now perhaps the Greyhounds’ greatest rival, checks in at No. 11, while fellow 6A programs Northwest Rankin and Tupelo are No. 1 and 14 respectively.
“It just says Mississippi is finally making some inroads in the community of soccer,” OSHS coach Jeff French said. “It speaks volumes for the level of talent we have as far as players and you also have to take into consideration the quality of coaching.”
Led by the likes of Mike Jimenez, Nate Bond and Kealan Bagget, OSHS will host Biloxi on Tuesday having not lost in over a month.
“You always like to say you want to peak at the right time. I don’t know if we’ve played our best game yet, but I think we’re really starting to play really well and tying everything together,” French said. “I feel like we have some players where if you try to pin down one player and take him out of the game, we have three others who could step up and hurt you.”
Admittedly, coach Andy Batten thought his team might undergo a bit of a rebuild this year after graduating a bulk of their contributors a year ago. Instead, the Pirates rolled through their regular season slate to claim their third straight Region 8-4A title.
“We’re having a really good season. It has exceeded my expectations,” he said. “The team works hard and plays for each other.
“We’re not a team of individuals. Collectively everyone is willing to work hard. It has been a lot of fun.
Looking at the playoff picture, Pass Christian, which opens at home Tuesday, will likely have to go through West Lauderdale. Batten, however, said he hasn’t talked to his players about the undefeated Knights.
“They’re steamrolling everyone this year. They’re definitely the team to beat,” he said of West Lauderdale, their potential South State opponent. “If we make it that far, that’s when we’ll worry about them.”
New to the party
While the Coast’s playoff contingent is filled with plenty of familiar names, there’s a newcomer among the group. St. Martin’s girls clinched the program’s first-ever playoff berth last week and have high hopes heading into the postseason.
New coach Ryan Ceccorulli actually utilized an incredibly young team, with five middle schoolers on the varsity roster. And yet, the team still found a way to make school history.
“Faith was first and foremost,” Ceccorulli said. “We just had the belief we could do it, no matter how old or young we were. We just kept it in them for the entire season.
“That’s the ultimate truth. They just bought into it.”
The Yellow Jackets won’t get eased into the post-season, however, as they travel to Gulfport on Tuesday.
“(Coach Chris) Pryor is going to be ready and prepared,” Ceccorulli said. “Gulfport is a great team. They have a great forward (Alexis Arnoult) who just committed to college (Louisiana-Lafayette) so we’re going to have to shut her down of course.
“It’s going to be tough. We just have to go in believing we’ll win the game and let God do the rest.”
Coast playoff schedule
Biloxi at Ocean Springs, 7:30 p.m.
George County at Gulfport, 7 p.m.
Biloxi at Ocean Springs, 6 p.m.
St. Martin at Gulfport, 5:30 p.m.
Picayune at Long Beach, 7 p.m.
West Harrison at Stone, 7 p.m.
Hattiesburg at West Harrison, 7 p.m.
Long Beach at Stone, 5:30 p.m.
Bay at East Central, 7:30 p.m.
Greene County at St. Stanislaus, 7 p.m.
Greene County at Pass Christian, 6 p.m.
Bay at East Central, 6 p.m.
Clarkdale at St. Patrick, 6 p.m.
Resurrection at Sacred Heart, 7:30 p.m.
Clarkdale at Our Lady Academy, 6 p.m.
Resurrection at Sacred Heart, 5:30 p.m.