August 7, 2014 11:27:27 AM
Dylan Howard and Ricky Hackler hope older means better this season.
A year ago, Howard and Hackler were newcomers looking to make an impact on the Itawamba Community College men's soccer team. Howard, a former standout at Starkville High School, and Hackler, a former standout at Columbus High, were part of a talented freshman class coach Mike Sullivan hoped was going to help the Indians climb to the top of the pack in the Mississippi Association of Colleges and Junior Colleges (MACJC).
Sullivan's hopes were realized in more ways than one.
Not only did the ICC men win the program's first outright MACJC North Division Championship, but the Indians also posted a 3.33 grade-point average at the conclusion of the semester.
Howard and Hackler helped pave the way and with Piercen Burchfield, of Pontotoc, and Joravar Malli, of Tupelo, earned places on the All-State team in their first season.
This season, Howard and Hackler are a year older and have what could be an even more talented group of freshman joining them in an effort to improve of last season's 9-3-2 record and appearance in the semifinals of the state tournament.
"Compared to last year, preseason is two to three times as intense already," Howard said Wednesday on the team's first full day of practice. "We have not done much small-sided games or scrimmaging, but it is a serious fight for spots."
Howard, who was second on the team with 13 points (five goals), hopes to return to a key role at center mid, while Hackler feels he will compete for playing time as a wing midfielder. Like Howard, Hackler has been impressed with the depth that the freshmen bring to the squad.
"Last year, one of the bigger things we struggled with was fitness and having players come in and replace the starters," said Hackler, who tied for third on the team in scoring with nine points (three goals). "Everybody from last year is way better, and coach Sullivan has done some recruiting and we have two teams of 11 where there is no difference between the groups."
Sullivan signed a 10-player class that includes John Nabors (Tupelo), defender Kit Huddleston (Tupelo), defender Sabbi Malli (Tupelo), midfielder Graves Marshall (Corinth), striker Anthony Fernandez (New Albany), midfielder Justin Gordon (Starkville), midfielder Blake Lashlee (Olive Branch), midfielder Justin Guyer (Olive Branch), defender Jade Pollack (Vicksburg), and midfielder Will Bevill (Chelsea, Alabama). He admits it is the most talented squad he has put together at the school.
Sullivan said it was his goal to bring in a big class of freshmen to complement a promising group of returning sophomores. He hope that the competition for playing time will drive the team to reach even higher. ICC opens its season Aug. 19 at Pearl River C.C. and plays host to Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. on Aug. 22 in its home opener.
"I think it is a success breeds success kind of thing," Sullivan said. "We return a huge group that was the core of the success we had last year. In the state semifinal, we started nine freshmen, and I think good players want to play with good players. I think that is what happened with the freshman class we signed. I think those players are going to push the sophomores for some playing time."
Sullivan hopes freshman Justin Gordon is one of the players that challenges for playing time. Gordon played soccer at Starkville High before transferring to Hebron Christian in Pheba. Sullivan said Gordon brings a wealth of speed and skill to the forward that could help make the Indians even more dangerous.
With Howard and Hackler back patrolling the middle and creating havoc, Sullivan likes his team's chances.
"Rickey is definitely going to be somebody who is in the mix," Sullivan said. "He was one of the top guys last year. If you look at outside midfield, he has speed and technical ability that is a nightmare for opposing teams.
"Dylan is our captain and is one of the engines that drives us. He is one of the most competitive soccer-loving kids I have ever seen. He is the kind of guy who is totally committed to winning. He will kill himself out there on the field. He is going to be one of the guys who helps put us where we end up. Hopefully that is going to be in a good place."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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