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Brian Tannehill / The Herald Stanhope Elmore's Robert Phillips (8) tries to control the ball agaisnt Montgomery Academy's Femi Adediji (9) on Saturday.

After five straight seasons of making it to at least the second round of the state tournament, Stanhope Elmore’s boys soccer team has run into some issues it has not seen in recent years. The Mustangs entered play in Class 6A Section 6 with just one victory in their first 10 matches and they are trying to find ways to respond before it’s too late.

“I feel like we’re handling it well,” Stanhope coach Johanna Angelo said. “I’m trying to make sure we can keep some positivity. They are extremely willing and coachable.”

One of the main ways Angelo is keeping her players focused is the start of section play as the Mustangs turn their attention to another appearance in the postseason. Stanhope Elmore opened that part of its schedule Thursday with a trip to Calera.

The Mustangs (1-3-6) are scheduled to have just three section games remaining and victories in two of them can clinch a spot in the playoffs. 

“It’s all about the postseason and I tell them that,” Angelo said. “If I learned anything from last season, the 14 games outside of the area mean nothing. You can have the prettiest record but that won’t get you past the second round of playoffs. I have tried to refocus them on that idea.”

While the results may not show a lot of progress, a lot of that has to do with the level of competition Angelo scheduled. The Mustangs are no strangers to having a difficult schedule but after losing so much experience from last year’s team, the players clearly were not ready for some of those challenges early in the season.

Stanhope Elmore has already faced eight teams ranked in the latest poll by the Alabama High School Soccer Coaches Association, including five in 6A. The Mustangs got a draw against No. 1 Pelham and a win over No. 9 Pinson Valley but the difficult stretch of games have been hard on the players.

“Our schedule is hard and the scores are all over the place,” Angelo said. “They just have to focus on some specific things to work on. We look at each game and identify basic things we can fix.”

Angelo said she doesn’t have any regrets yet on scheduling the tough teams because she hopes it has prepared them for later on in the season,

“I will only second guess it if they allow it to break them down mentally,” Angelo said. “If they have the maturity to understand why we do that and step away with information how to move forward, I won’t second guess it. We have to keep spirits up and I have to keep them with me.”

While the schedule and weather have not done the Mustangs any favors, Angelo admitted there have been some gaps in their play on the field as well. Reading the field and off-ball movement on the offensive end has been a struggle for Stanhope, resulting in an average of just one goal per game.

The Mustangs have already been shut out twice this season which is one more than all of last year. However, Angelo has made some adjustments including a major change, moving two-year defensive starter Dylan Presciti to join Wade Phillips on the front line.

“I moved some people around so I hope I addressed it a little bit,” Angelo said. “I changed formation. We wanted to go with a 4-4-2 to start the season but some of the boys weren’t catching it so we moved back to the 4-5-1. Then I decided they are just going to have to learn it so we moved back to the 4-4-2.”

Angelo said she believes things are getting better and she expects to see that continue if the season continues after it has been halted due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Stanhope did not have a lot of players with varsity experience entering the season, which was not a hurdle Angelo saw in the last few years.

Despite the slow start, the Mustangs are no lowering their expectations for the rest of the season.

“I don’t do this to go home in the third week of April,” Angelo said.

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.