Bulldogs open season against nationally-ranked Rock Bridge.
Mike Howard isn't worried about talent this fall.
His Rolla High School boys' soccer team has plenty of that.
The question about this year's Bulldogs, according to their head coach, is who will settle into the leadership roles.
Indeed, the Bulldogs seem to have the parts for another serious run in the state playoffs.
And RHS gets a huge test immediately, as the Bulldogs host nationally-ranked Columbia Rock Bridge today in their season-opener. The junior varsity game begins at 5 p.m. at Kiwanis Field with the varsity contest to follow. The Rock Bridge Bruins, ranked No. 28 in the high school national poll, is 2-0 after winning weekend games in Kansas City over Rockhurst and Lee's Summit North. Rock Bridge finished third in the Missouri Class 3 State Tournament last year.
The Bulldogs had a strong season in 2012, finishing 24-5, tying Joplin for the Ozark Conference championship, winning the Missouri Class 2 District 10 Tournament championship and advancing to the quarterfinals before falling to eventual Class 2 runner-up Carthage 2-0. RHS was ranked No. 6 in the final 2012 Class 2 state poll.
Seven starters return from that squad.
"I still think we're trying to find the right combination," Howard said. "We're trying to get people in the right spots, especially in the back line.
"They're working hard. I think we've gotten better every day. We'll find out (today). I love opening against tough teams. You find out where your weaknesses are. We'll find that out right away."
Leading the way for RHS are returning senior all-state selections Aaron Froehlich at foreward and Nate Kramme on defense.
Froehlich set the RHS single-season record in goals scored last season, netting 66 goals - the second-highest total in the state last season - and 13 assists while Kramme had three goals and nine assists.
Also back are senior forward Hunter Short, who scored 14 goals and 21 assists in 2012 and senior midfielder Logan Houf, who scored eight goals and 17 assists a year ago. In goal senior Gage Scurlock, with seven shutouts last season, is back.
Among those lost to graduation are all-state midfielder Matt Calvert and all-district midfielders Michael Janke and Sven Olberg.
In front of Scurlock in goal are backs Kramme, senior Brendan Cunningham, junior Jordan Kaden and junior transfer student Theron Weeks.
Starting at midfield for RHS are Houf, senior Austin Parks, senior Aiden Gelles and senior Caleb Homan.
Froehlich and Short return at forward.
"Offensively I'm not worried too much," Howard said. "I thought we gave up way too many goals last year. We've really focused on team defense in the preseason.
"The main thing with these guys is they've got a lot of ability, but it's about their leadership this year. They have some different roles this year because we did lose a lot of senior leadership."
Howard says both the Ozark Conference and Missouri Class 2 District 10 races are going to be difficult.
"Last year Rolla and Joplin shared the conference championship and Joplin has everybody back this year. And (Springfield) Kickapoo is always tough in the conference. Our district is very tough. But if you can get out of district you have a chance."
BULLDOG NOTES: This year's Class 2 District 10 Tournament will be held in Bolivar. If Rolla can repeat as district champion and then again meets Borgia in the sectionals; that game would be held in Washington.
And if Rolla returns to the quarterfinals against Carthage, that contest would be held in Rolla.
Logan MacCash will serve as Howard's assistant this season.
2013 Rolla High boys' soccer schedule:
Sept. 3...Columbia Rock Bridge, 5 p.m.
Sept. 9-12...Pacific Tourney, tba
Sept. 13-14...Waynesville JV Tourney, tba
Sept. 17...Springfield Parkview, 5 p.m.
Sept. 18...at Jefferson City, 5 p.m.
Sept. 20-21...Parkway Tourney, tba
Sept. 24...at West Plains, 5 p.m.
Sept. 27-28...Rolla Invitational, tba
Oct. 1...at Lebanon, 5 p.m.
Oct. 3...Jeff. City Helias, 5 p.m.
Oct. 8...Springfield Hillcrest, 5 p.m.
Oct. 10...at Waynesville, 5 p.m.
Oct. 12...at Fort Zumwalt East, noon
Oct. 15...Springfield Glendale, 5 p.m.
Oct. 19...MICDS, 1 p.m.
Oct. 22...at Camdenton, 5 p.m.
Oct. 24...at Springfield Kickapoo, 5 p.m.
Oct. 25-26...Thomas Whitefield Games, tba
Oct. 29...Joplin, 4:30 p.m.
Nov. 4-9...Class 2 District 10 Tourney at Bolivar