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File / The Herald Elmore County’s Raney Jones led the Panthers with 19 goals and added five assists during the 2019 season.

With the soccer season rapidly approaching, both Elmore County teams are expected to be without some starters to begin but they are still excited to get back on the pitch and take another step forward as a program.

After going winless in its first two seasons, the girls team took a big leap with seven wins last year and the Panthers are looking to make another jump. Elmore County still fell just short of the postseason, finishing third in Class 4A-5A Section 4, and the Panthers are hungry.

“It’s definitely exciting,” ECHS coach Angie Simmons said. “The girls are ready. We have added a girls JV team this year; that’s how much buzz last year’s team created. We’re getting to develop a new crop of girls.”

That extra depth will be more than welcomed as the Panthers are searching for ways to replace five starters and having three girls on the basketball team. A lot of the holes are on the back line where only one starter returns.

Bri Autrey is expected to move into the center back while Mirriam Foster and Aleeyah Hernandez are competing to fill the other starting spot. Fortunately, the Panthers return starting goalkeeper Mackenzie Stephens to help lead the backline.

“The sky is the limit for her,” Simmons said. “She is a natural-born leader and she has gained the respect of veteran players and the new players. She will be the leader of the defense.”

Kendall Downey may also see time on defense and midfield but she is still recovering from a knee injury. With Downey out, Sam Sanford is expected to take on the role as a defensive midfielder with Anna Kate Simmons as the attacking midfielder.

First-year player CK Bolton could make an immediate impact as Simmons expects her to be a starter. Emily Spears and Olivia Mitchell will be up top in Elmore County’s 4-4-2 formation.

Leading the attack will be reigning Elmore County Player of the Year Raney Jones who scored 19 points in 12 matches last season. While she snuck up on opponents as an eighth-grader, Simmons said Jones will have to work harder to keep that pace up.

“She’s going to have to step it up,” Simmons said. “She has to be a leader. The other girls really look up to her so we have high expectations for her. She is just special.”

The boys team is returning nine starters but it has to replace leaders from the front and the back.

Elmore County has to replace Jason Aguilar, who scored or assisted on 32 of its 41 goals last year.

Panther boys coach John Hilbish will make a slight tweak to his formation by moving to a 3-4-3. Joseph Stockman, who played defense last season before getting injured, will play striker.

“(Stockman) kid is just great,” Hilbish said. “I think this is the year where he will truly see his potential. And I think he was born for that position. He sees the field really well and he always knows what to do with the ball. He is going to be a natural there.”

Joining Stockman up top will be returning leading scorer Alex Simmons on the left and Reid Swicord on the right. Hilbish said the two will stay close to the box and will often switch sides during matches.

In the back, Elmore County will have to replace goalkeeper Cade Celka. Fortunately, the Panthers have their entire starting backline returning, led by 2019 all-county defender James Duckett on the left. Hutchison Nicholas and Sam Barlet will take up the other two center back spots while first-year player Hayden Holton is expected to start in goal.

“We’re good enough back there,” Hilbish said. “I want to put the emphasis on offense to keep those guys up front. No one wants to see a boring soccer game and I think that’s important.”

Connecting the forwards with the defense will be senior midfielders Brandon Aguilar and Keith Ballard.

“Those are our two leaders and they have some very good experience together,” Hilbish said. “Their leadership is the most important thing. They bring that communication you need. (That) gives us that vocal leader on the pitch from front to back.”

The season begins Feb. 6 at Talladega.

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.