The East Central Community College men’s soccer team will be looking to defend its 2017 Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges North Division Title when the 2018 season officially gets underway Aug. 24 on the road at Jones County Junior College.

If the Warriors are to repeat as North Division champions they will have to do so with a host of new players after losing seven key members of last year’s squad that finished 9-6-1 overall and 5-2-1 in division play. East Central’s season ended in the MACJC State/National Junior College Athletic Association Region 23 Tournament against eventual State/Region 23 champion Pearl River Community College.

“The biggest key to being able to defend our title will be how quickly our new players acclimate themselves to the college game and play together as a team,” said ECCC head coach Kenneth Thompson, who enters his 20th season leading the Warriors. “We will need some team leaders to step forward and quickly take charge.”

The Warriors will begin the season with a couple of exhibition matches, at Meridian Community College Aug. 17 and at home against Mississippi University for Women Aug. 22 at 6 p.m. on the campus in Decatur. The schedule also includes home and away matches against the other four North Division schools.

East Central will be the only team in the state that plays every soccer team in the MACJC this season. In addition to the North Division matches, the Warriors also have home and away dates with Pearl River and Jones County, and single games with Meridian, Mississippi Gulf Coast, and Southwest Mississippi. The Warriors will also host Andrew College out of Cuthbert, Ga., on Oct. 12 at 3 p.m., also on campus.

East Central opened the preseason Aug. 6 with four returning starters and two more who garnered a lot of playing time last fall in reserve roles.

Among those gone are the entire defensive back line, including Tyler White (Belhaven University), Andrew Bernard and Hector Mendoza (both Mississippi University for Women), and Cory Furlow, who is enrolled in the engineering program at Mississippi State University. Team captain and attacking midfielder Jacob Thomas (MUW), defensive midfielder Henry Artica, and forward Tanner Lindsey also have graduated.

Returning to anchor the offense is last season’s leading scorer midfielder Francisco Romero, who prepped at Ripley High School. Romero scored eight goals and had one assist on his way to MACJC First Team All-State honors. Jake Craft out of Clinton is the most experienced defender returning, while goalkeeper Dylan Shoemaker of Forest High School is back in goal. Shoemaker was twice named MACJC Goalkeeper of the Week last fall.

Thompson has added some talented newcomers to the 2018 squad, including one of the top scorers in Mississippi high school soccer last season in Braylen Greer, a forward from Warren Central High School in Vicksburg. Freshman midfielder Joel Hill from Newton County High School also joins the Warriors.

Both Greer and Hill played in last year’s Mississippi High School Activities Association All-Star Soccer Game.

Also on board is midfielder Elvis Rubio, who joins the team from Spring Woods High School in Houston, Texas.

“Braylen has a real knack for the goal, and we hope he can score early and often for us this year at the college level,” noted Thompson. “Joel is a talented player with plenty of experience. We hope he can come in right away and fill the void of losing some talented sophomores in the midfield. Elvis Rubio is an attacking midfielder who comes from a strong 6A program in Houston. His high school team made it to the fourth round of the playoffs before falling to the eventual state champion and finishing 18-2-3 overall.”

With the return of Romero and the addition of the newcomers, Thompson believes the Warriors will be able to score more goals this season and again compete for a North Division title.

“On paper, it certainly appears that we will be able to score more this season,” said Thompson. “We will know soon enough if that translates over to the field. We have some talented attacking players on the squad this year.”

For East Central to repeat, however, will require the youthful defensive backline to grow up fast.

“There will be some players back there who can be successful, and if they are then we will have a great chance to be successful as a team,” Thompson said. “We will need to steadily improve from game to game especially early in the non-division portion of the schedule.

“We feel like we can certainly qualify for the playoffs and have a chance to win the division again. However, the intangibles have to go our way: no injuries, no card issues, and freshmen being able to contribute at a high level early and throughout the season.”

The Warriors won the Tom Shepherd Sportsmanship Award in 2017 for the third time since it was first presented in 2004. The award is presented annually to the MACJC team with the fewest number of yellow and red cards.