By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor
With there being four different soccer classifications in both boys and girls high school soccer across Alabama, creating eight first place spots, it’s remarkable to see the state’s preseason coaches poll with four of those eight first place positions going to county teams.
That was the case when the first standings of the 2019 soccer season were released, as Chelsea’s girls, Briarwood’s boys and both Westminster at Oak Mountain teams, were all ranked No. 1 in their respective class to start the season.
Outside of those four teams, it doesn’t get any less stellar thanks to a total of 10 more finding the top 15 in their respective class, to give the county 14 teams ranked to start the new year.
Starting with the four first place teams, the Chelsea Hornets’ girls team is sitting in the top spot despite coming up a game short of the Final Four last year, but deservedly so.
Going into last season, the Hornets were the defending state champions with a large group of players back, and looked good in the postseason until running into John Carroll. The Cavaliers took down the Hornets 4-0, but went on to win the Class 6A state championship without giving up a single goal throughout the postseason.
Had Chelsea pulled off that game, there’s a strong chance the Hornets would have gone on to win the title.
Now with John Carroll down in the 4A-5A classification, the path is paved for Chelsea this season with one of the strongest returning cores in the state.
In the 5A classification, the Briarwood Lions are in a similar situation as the No. 1 team, having lost in back-to-back state championship games to Randolph.
Two years ago, the Lions lost in heartbreaking fashion after leading late in the game, and last year, they never really clicked and lost 5-1.
This year, however, Randolph moved up to Class 6A, and the Lions are now the clear favorite to win the 4A-5A state title. Briarwood tends to have an easier path, and while their area will become much more difficult this season adding Indian Springs and John Carroll, the Lions return Logan Frost and a strong group of players that make them as dangerous as anyone.
The same can be said for both Westminster at Oak Mountain’s boys and girls, who came in at No. 1 in the Class 1A-3A standings.
Like Chelsea’s girls and Briarwood’s boys, the biggest challenger for Westminster tends to be Montgomery Academy on both the boys and girls side of things.
This year, Montgomery Academy has moved up to the 4A-5A classification, paving the way for the Knights. Last year Westminster’s girls lost in the second round to Montgomery Academy, despite being ranked No. 1 or No. 2 for the majority of the season along with Montgomery, who went on to win the state championship.
This season, the girls will be playing in the honor of their late head coach Ken Headley, who recently passed away from cancer. They have the athletes to be great, and it wouldn’t be shocking if the Knights ended the season as state champions.
For the Westminster boys, they were able to take down Montgomery Academy in the second round last year and went on to win the state championship over West Morgan in Christian Adkins’ first year as head coach of the Knights at the age of 24 years old.
Now his team returns many of its stars, including Price Leonard, who was MVP of the Final Four last year at the 1A-3A level. The Knights look to be the runaway favorite in the division.
Starting in Class 7A, Oak Mountain’s boys and girls highlight the other 10 teams that were ranked to start the season.
Both the boys and girls came in at No. 4 to start the season, as the Eagles hope to get back to their state championship expectations.
Competing in difficult areas, as well as difficult first rounds of the playoffs, last year’s Oak Mountain teams both lost in the first round to the Vestavia Hills Rebels.
The year before that, the boys won the state championship, while the girls advanced to the Final Four, before losing to Vestavia Hills 2-0.
In 2019, the Oak Mountain boys will be breaking in a somewhat new coach after Dan DeMasters left to become the Thompson girls coach, as well as the director of soccer.
A familiar face, however, will step into his place.
David DiPiazza, who helped lead the 2015 Oak Mountain girls team, is ready to help do so with the boys as their new head coach.
For the 2019 girls team, they’ll be under the direction of Chris Blight again, and have several solid playmakers ready to make some noise, but at the same time, the Eagles lost some key players as well.
The ranking of four is about right for both teams, as each should have a chance to compete for a title thanks to a talent rich area.
Closing out the 7A classification, the Spain Park girls are ranked fifth, while Thompson’s girls are 11th, four spots in front of the boys at 15.
Spain Park’s girls may actually be underrated this season with one of the top goalkeepers in the county and the state returning, as well as one of the top goal scorers in Jasmine Greene. Both will be surrounded by great playmakers, both on the back end and at forward.
The biggest problem for the Jaguars is a difficult area featuring No. 1 Vestavia Hills, No. 9 Hewitt-Trussville and No. 10 Mountain Brook. It’s nothing new for SPHS, who has been in an area with Mountain Brook and Oak Mountain the last two years, an experience that should help.
If they match up well against Vestavia, this could be a team to watch this year.
Both Thompson teams sit just outside of the top 10, but the girls have the addition of DeMasters, who proved in his time at Oak Mountain that he was the best coach in the state, while the boys have a plethora of talent.
There are only two playoff spots for three good teams out of Class 7A, Area 5, as Thompson will be battling with Oak Mountain and Hoover for one of those two spots.
Moving down to 6A, the Pelham and Chelsea boys teams are both inside the top seven, with Pelham’s boys coming in at No. 3 and the Chelsea boys at No. 7.
Pelham is just two years removed from its first state championship in school history, and were arguably the best team in the state last year as well.
The Panthers didn’t win the state championship, and exited the playoffs in the first round, but that was due to an overtime loss to Homewood by a final of 3-2. The Patriots then went on to win the state title, giving up just one more goal the rest of the way.
That loss should not only have Pelham motivated to redeem the heartbreak, but it should also give the Panthers confidence that they can beat anybody.
Chelsea was in a similar boat last year after a 2-1 loss to John Carroll in the first round, before the Cavaliers went on to lose to Homewood in the quarterfinals.
This year, Chelsea returns an impressive group, similar to the girls team, and may be a tad underrated going into the season. That being said, there are some great teams ahead of them, as 6A will be one of the toughest divisions to win this season.
After a disappointing run last year, Briarwood’s girls will be looking to make another trip back to the final four after winning a state championship two years ago.
The Lions came in at No. 5 in the preseason poll, but their area is much more difficult this season with the additions of Indian Springs and John Carroll, both normal contenders for championships in their respective classifications after moving into 4A-5A due to the private school rule.
In that same division, Indian Springs’ girls were ranked 11th to start the season, while the boys will start the season in fourth.
Both teams lost in the second round of the postseason last year, but are normal contenders in the sport of soccer. With talent all over their teams, it will be interesting to see how Springs handles the jump up.