The Rolla soccer team has been on a roll the last few seasons. After making it to the State Quarterfinal in 2016, the Bulldogs won their District again in 2017 before their season ended with a tough loss to conference rival Glendale in Sectionals. Rolla will look to keep that momentum going in 2018 and they return a ton of talent from last year's team.
While Rolla returns all but four of their starters from last season, the Bulldogs have two big holes to fill defensively. The Bulldogs will have a change of the guard at keeper after Drew Blair, who set the school record for shutouts, graduated last year. In steps Josiah Homan, who saw a little bit of playing time last season for an injured Blair. Homan has all of the skills to step in and play well at the position. He has good height and long arms to go along with solid athleticism and reflexes in goal. Head coach Mike Howard is confident that Homan has what it takes to play well as Rolla's last stand on defense.
"It's just going to be confidence. He just needs to play confident. Like today (in the jamboree) he came out, he made a good call trying to come out and punch a ball out, but he just made a soft slap at it. He needs to come out and be assertive and punch that thing," said coach Howard. "I think that will come with time. I think he'll to alright...He's such a big kid and a good athlete and strong. He just needs to get used to using that big frame of his and bossing people around a little bit and telling them where to go."
The other big hole to fill is at center back. That role has been filled by Nick Janke for four years and now Rolla has a brand new varsity player filling that spot in Nate Pulliam. The sophomore is no stranger to high pressure situations, as he went 49-1 wrestling as a freshman with his only loss coming in the State Championship. Coach Howard thinks he'll be able to handle the load of being the center back without much trouble.
"Nobody could replace Nick I don't think, but Nate is an incredible athlete. He's very tough mentally and physically," said the Bulldog head coach. "He competed for a State Championship as a freshman, so I'm not really worried about his ability to compete at all. It's just going to be, like Josiah, getting used to playing with these older guys and the pace of the play, but he'll adapt pretty quick."
While Pulliam doesn't have the varsity experience, he will be a part of what should be a very physical defense. He's a very tough player, as he's shown on the mat and he has some very tough defenders around him. Senior captain Rhys Proffitt will play on the left side and isn't afraid of charging full speed ahead into any forward trying to make a run on net. Rolla also has a sturdy defender on the top of the defense in Adeeb Messri. Rolla is still looking to lock in their fourth starter on defense, but they have some strong candidates.
"We're just working on that one back, but we'll figure out who it is," said coach Howard. "We tried Tanner there, Benji Colench, Zach Pendleton, Carlos Guzman, that's four right off the bat that I thinkn could do it. It's just deciding which one is best is the trick."
Proffitt will likely be the key to Rolla's defense this season and coach Howard knows he can move his senior captain to the center back spot if he needs a player that can step up to lead the Bulldogs on the back end.
"It's huge. If we have to, we can always throw Rhys into the center part and be okay," said Howard. "If we switched Nate and Rhys, we wouldn't miss a beat. It's not like the cupboard is bare back there."
As you move up the Bulldog lineup, you only see more experience. Rolla returns all four of their midfielders with senior captain Carson Arnold and junior Gabe Stanislawski in the middle, while juniors Evan Moore and Mohamad Alamaldiem man the outside. Up top, Rolla returns an electric scorer in senior captain Jarrett Gabriele with junior Joel Schott filling the only other vacancy in the starting lineup. With so much talent coming back at forward and midfield, Rolla could be an offensive juggernaut this season.
"Well we're going to find out that phrase 'offense wins games, defense wins championships,'" said coach Howard. "We'll put that to the test maybe this year. But no, coming forward we're going to be just fine. I'm not too worried about that. We only lost Jayson Ross and Joel Schott has filled in really well there."
Schott is one wildcard up top, but coach Howard likes the way he's looked so far this offseason. He doesn't have the breakaway speed that Ross brought to the offense last season, but he brings a good eye for the ball to the table.
"Joel and Jayson Ross are very different players. Jayson Ross was a little jitterbug that worked very hard and made himself very dangerous for other teams, but Joel is a very smart player," said the Rolla head coach. "One touch or two touches and he can finish in the box. He's very composed, he was our leading scorer on JV the last two years, so we know he can finish the ball and he just puts himself in good situations on the field."
The benefit that Schott has up top is the chance to play alongside a player that will take a lot of pressure off of him in Gabriele. The senior captain led the team with 25 goals last season, while dishing out 12 assists and has really turned up the intensity up top. Coach Howard is excited to see what he'll bring to the table in his final high school season.
"Just his strength, he's physically bigger and stronger. His pace has improved, he gets his shots off so quick, he has a very strong shot with either foot and he can turn on a dime and get a shot off," said Howard. "I think Jarrett will have a really good season for us again."
Those forwards will have room to work thanks to some excellent midfielders. Arnold has a great eye in the middle for distributing the ball and Stanislawski moves extremely well with the ball on his foot and showed some great moves scoring the ball during Rolla's jamboree on Tuesday. On the outside, Moore and Alamaldiem both have excellent speed and can push the pace. This group will be a tough one for opposing teams to handle all season long.
"In the 28 years I've been here, those are as good a group of four midfielders as we've ever had," said coach Howard. "They're very creative, very smart, strong on the ball and oh by the way, they're all juniors except for one of them. They're good soccer players and they live it. They work very hard at it.
"Carson and Gabe both have the ability to pick apart a defense with one pass. They just see the field so well and they're so skilled," continued the Rolla head coach. "Whether it's a ball through on the ground or it's driven in over top on somebody's foot, they both have the ability to do that. They've been playing center mid for us since they were freshmen."
Rolla soccer has a history of excellence under coach Howard, but he doesn't put much stock in preseason expectations. He just wants his team to go out and get better every day and the wins will come.
"We have no expectations other than it's Rolla soccer, just come and compete," said coach Howard. "If we practice hard every day, get better every day and see where it takes us and try not to worry about the winning and losing part."
Rolla will have a big change in their District this season, as long time rival Helias will no longer be one of the three teams with the Bulldogs to open postseason play. Rolla will play in Class 3 District 9 and the only team from the past few seasons that remains in their District is Camdenton. Replacing the Crusaders and Marshfield are a pair of schools down 44 in Pacific and Union, so their District will be almost identical to what the girls team has seen the last few years. Coach Howard thinks it could be an interesting District this season.
"I haven't played Union in guys soccer in several years. Pacific has a new coach, since Todd Dempsey became the principal, so he quit coaching. They were always well coached and I'm sure they will be again," said Howard. "Camdenton has a new coach as well in Chris Byington (who has coached their girls team for several years) so I'm not sure what to expect."
Rolla opens the season on their home field against Pacific on Tuesday, Aug. 28, before taking part in Pacific's annual tournament Sept. 4-6.