The Rolla soccer team is no stranger to success. Last season, the team made it to the State Quarterfinal, where they lost a heartbreaker to Carthage 2-1.
The key to matching that success this season is filling a couple of holes on defense left by Zac Burns and Stewart Meusch, who both graduated in the spring. Head coach Mike Howard has dealt with graduating class after graduating class and he thinks he's found the guys to fill in those spots. Luckily, Rolla returns their starting keeper in senior Drew Blair, who sits 11 shutouts from the school record, as well as the reigning Missouri Defensive Player of the Year Nick Janke and junior defenseman Rhys Proffit.
"We're gonna start Adeeb Messri right in front of Nick and on the right side we're going to start the season with Jacob Lortz and see how that goes," said coach Howard. "(Lortz) has actually been doing really well on the right side for us. Adeeb has done an outstanding job in the middle of the field. He's a very technical player, he's big, he can win 50/50 balls."
Rolla looked good defensively in their jamboree, but there were some loose ends to tighten up. The biggest issue was communication. Janke is used to having experienced defenders around him, players he didn't need to tell where to be and what to do. Now that he needs to direct traffic, he needs to be more vocal on the pitch.
"Nick's gonna have to communicate better than he did in the jamboree. And he knows that, we talked about that. I think he'll do a lot better job than that as the season goes on," said Howard. "He's a great leader on the field, but he's not a real vocal kid. Some of it will fall on Drew as well."
Offensively, the Bulldogs are pretty set. Their biggest loss is Nathan Gonzales, last year's assist leader who moved out of Rolla. While losing Gonzales is a big blow, the Bulldogs have added scoring. Their midfielders will have a great punch with Gabe Stanislawski returning and a healthy Carson Arnold in the middle, with Mohamed Alamaldeim on the left. The right side, however, is still up for grabs.
"We'll have Gabe Stanislawski and Carson Arnold in the middle of the field. I'd put those two up against just about anyone outside of St. Louis or Kansas City," Mohamed Alamaldeim is our left mid and he's got a very good amount of skill as well. The right side is what we're kind of hoping on right now. We're having a hard time trying to figure that spot out."
Of course the offense will also feature one of the best scorers around in Jarret Gabriele, who will run the middle of the field with Jayson Ross. Evan Moore is also in the fight for time at the forward position. Last season, the Rolla offense was a one-two punch of Gabriele and Gonzales, but the loss of Gonzales won't result in a major shift in their offensive approach.
"No we don't," said Howard of any changes in his offensive approach. "Jarret Gabriele is playing incredibly right now, the best he's ever played for us. Coach Hauck said it tonight, but I think Jayson Ross compliments Jarret very well. One's a bit of a grinder and one's more finesse. They seem to work very well together at the top. And I think Evan Moore can come in and give a good balance there as well."
Having a player like Arnold behind them will also help. Coach Howard has been impressed with his play at midfield.
"Carson is tremendous. He had a great freshman year for us and then got hurt and was hurt pretty much his whole sophomore season. He's just a very good player on the ball. He's smart, makes good choices with it, good at distributing the ball, can score goals," said Howard. "He, Gabe, Mohamed and Adeeb in the middle, I really like our midfield and our forwards a lot."
With some added punch offensively and a stout defense in front of their All-State second team keeper Blair, coach Howard is very optimistic about what this season might hold.
"I think we are going to be very dangerous going forward. Much more so than last year and I didn't think we were bad last year," said Howard of his offense. "As long as we can stay away from the injury bug, I think we're going to have a good team this year.
Blair and Janke, the team's returning All-State players, will also serve as the team's captains. Their leadership and excellent defense will continue to set the tone for Rolla soccer.
"Not only are they returning All-Staters, but they're also four year starters for us, so they know exactly what we expect of our players defensively," said Howard. "All those things are bonuses for us."
Coach Howard was also quick to point out that he has an excellent assistant in Marty Hauck. Hauck is the head coach of both the wrestling and baseball teams in Rolla, so having a second head coach on the sideline is a huge benefit.
"It's nice to work with Marty Hauck again. It's a huge benefit to have a guy that's the head coach of two sports. It's pretty much like having a second head coach," said coach Howard. "The kids love him and we work really well together."
While Howard is confident in his team, he also knows they have a tough road ahead. First they have a District that includes tough matchups against Helias and Camdenton, then they have a Sectional game where they usually run up against another fellow Ozark Conference team in Glendale. On top of that they have a stellar conference that includes teams like Glendale and Camdenton, as well as Kickapoo. Despite the challenges ahead, his team has been there before.
"A lot of people ask me that question. Are we going to be as good as we were last year? Are we going to go as far as we did last year? Really, it all starts with the fact that you have to get out of your District and Helias just beat Camdenton 9-0," said Howard. "Our District is one of the toughest in the state hands down and it seems to be every year. That's okay, if you get out of your District, you know you've got Glendale probably. We have to be hot defensively, I think. Anybody who goes on a run coming out of the southwest and south central area will have to be good defensively, obviously, because there's a lot of goals being scored by a lot of teams.
As for the Ozark Conference, Howard doesn't know what to expect. Rolla shared the conference crown with Glendale and Kickapoo last season and Camdenton is always a tough game, but Camdenton and Kickapoo were both on receiving ends of blowouts in their first games. Coach Howard just plans on figuring the conference out as he goes.
"I don't know, I really don't know," said Howard of the Ozark Conference. "(We won't know) until we get into playing some games and seeing where everybody's at.
The Bulldogs open their season with the Pacific Tournament, which started with a matchup against Windsor on Monday, Aug. 28. Results from that game were not available at press time.