There will be a lot new faces on the soccer pitch for the East Central Community College women's soccer team in 2018 as the Lady Warriors look to return to the state playoffs after a one-year absence.
Among those new faces is first-year head coach Ryan Joiner, who officially took over the team in June after winning three Mississippi High School Activities Association state championships from 2013 to 2016 as head boys' coach at St. Stanislaus College in Bay St. Louis. For the past two seasons he was the head girls' soccer coach at his alma mater Ocean Springs High School.
Joiner inherits a program that competed in the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges state playoffs three straight seasons before missing out on the postseason in fall 2017.
"EC women's soccer, especially the past five years, has grown into a very solid program," said Joiner, who was an All-State and All-Region goalkeeper at Meridian Community College. "There was a lot of work to do to complete a recruiting class of 13 players in such a short period of time after being hired, but we have assembled a very talented team and are excited about the potential for the returning players and incoming players for the Lady Warriors."
Joiner doesn't have long to get to know his team. The players reported for preseason practice on Aug. 6 and play their first match on Aug. 11 when Southwest Tennessee Community College visits Decatur for an 11 a.m. match.
"Preseason training will be of the utmost importance for us," noted Joiner. "We added an early preseason game to help identify what we need to work on going forward. We will hit the ground running with our defensive shape and then begin to install our tactical philosophies.
"With so many freshmen and new faces coming to the team, we will have to work extremely hard in a short amount of time to accomplish our goal of reaching the playoffs."
Not everyone will be new to the team this season. There are five returners from last year's squad who all saw time as starters in some capacity. The veterans will be counted on to provide leadership for the freshman class in training and games.
While most of players will be new to each other, Joiner says there are some "very technically gifted players" on this year's team and he can't wait to see which players get slotted into the starting lineup.
Key positions gone from last year's East Central team include goalkeeper Sarah Gilliland, now at Mississippi University for Women, and leading scorer Ashley Langham, who will play for William Carey University this fall.
Among the veterans back for 2018 is Carrington Payne, a midfielder from Richland who started three games a year ago. Backup goalkeeper Jordan Havens of Horn Lake also returns and will compete for a starting spot.
"Carrington dedicated herself in the offseason to becoming a more complete player and looks to offer the team a lot defensively as well as getting forward," said Joiner. "Jordan has some college game experience and is a very solid goalie. She plays well with her feet and our team style will be predicated on her being comfortable playing out from the back."
Among the first-year players expected to contribute are three from overseas. Midfielder Lia Richardson and forward Leah Anderson are both from England, while forward Bethany Hand joins the team from Dublin, Ireland. Forward Macey Spencer, who played for state champion Florence High School last year, will be counted on for her goal scoring, something that the Lady Warriors had trouble doing last season. Emily Pitts from Pearl High School will compete with Havens for time in goal.
"We have recruited players with championship pedigree from high school and club teams," Joiner said. "We have players joining us from Madison Central, Northwest Rankin, Florence, and West Jones who have all won state titles as players. We expect that experience and desire to win to be crucial within all of our players.
"Our inexperience, however, will be one of our weaknesses that we will need to overcome. We will have a learning curve over the first four games to find out who we are as a team. Once we get that experience, I believe the sky is the limit for this group of players."
East Central will be looking to put the ball in the net more in 2018. The Lady Warriors managed just 24 goals last year, which ranked 94th in the National Junior College Athletic Association. Joiner said his Lady Warriors will play pressing defense in order to win the ball early, and, when they have the ball, keep it.
"Our team will be very diverse in the systems of play we show each team," he Joiner. "We will cater our system to suit each game and want to be versatile to switch systems when needed. We see ourselves as a team that will be pressing the ball high up the field and trying to not allow other teams to have the ball. When we have the ball, we expect to keep it in order to move the opponent; we will not just keep possession for the save of keeping it.
"With that said, we need to find ways to create more chances in the final third, and to be able to score goals in those moments. Defensively, being organized is a critical part of the junior college game that I believe will win games. So, we want to focus on defending first, attacking second, and winning games will occur."
Joiner has put together an 18-match schedule for the 2018 East Central Lady Warriors, which includes hosting NJCAA Region 23 newcomer LSU-Eunice on Sept. 25 at 2 p.m. In addition to eight matches—four home and four away—against MACJC North Division teams, the Lady Warriors will make a trip to Memphis, Tenn., on Aug. 22 to face Southwest Tennessee a second time and then host Dyersburg State Community College out of Dyersburg, Tenn., at 1 p.m. on Oct. 12. East Central will travel to Ellisville on Aug. 28 to face defending MACJC State/NJCAA Region 23 champion Jones County Junior College at 5 p.m.
"Going into my first season I expect to win championships," said Joiner. "Although we have a lot of turnover and new players coming in, so does every other team in the league. We have brought in players who want to compete and win. This is not a rebuild, this is a reload. We want to win the North Division and make the MACJC Playoffs. Once you make the playoffs, anything can happen. And, with anything, we need hard work, dedication, and a bit of good fortune along the way."