All three teams finished the season in the top 10, and each match between them was decided by one goal.
Lassiter was getting most of the recognition last season, winning its first 11 games and having No. 1 rankings in both Class AAAAA and in the nation by the ESPN Rise spring soccer ranking.
But the Trojans, who has a preseason ranking of No. 4, ended up getting upset by both Walton and Wheeler during region play and had to go on the road for the postseason, despite making it to the quarterfinals.
Walton, which also made the state quarterfinals, bested the two teams last year in winning 5AAAAA, needing just a penalty kick to beat Wheeler 1-0 in area play.
First year Lassiter coach Sam Dietrich is taking the reins after serving as assistant coach at Pope a couple of years ago. He’ll be inheriting a team that’s lost midfielders Shaban Abousaud and Brandon Barbero and forward Eldridge Bennett but not lacking experience with 13 experienced upperclassmen on the roster.
And ten of Lassiter’s 13 upperclassmen are seniors, led by midfielders Andy Bujarski and Clay Dimick, defenders Will Stubbs and Alex Champion and goalkeeper Justin Shaw.
“We got a strong upperclassman group sticking around with a lot of kids playing similar positions for a couple of years,” Dietrich said. “We have some gaps to fill but I have a strong senior class coming through.”
Walton experience a change of leadership last season for the first time in 27 seasons when girls coach Bruce Wade took over for the retired Bucky Boozer after the Raiders won a state championship in 2011.
While the Raiders have adjusted to having a new coach, they will have to adjust to not having midfielder Holden Fender and goalkeeper Alex McCauley, both of who are now playing at North Carolina State. They will also miss forward Grant Cooksey (Berry) and midfielder J.D. Nourachi (Oglethorpe).
Walton is experienced in the midfield with seniors Reid Harm, Shehean Barzegar and Nikolai Zarnov but Wade said the Raiders are still looking for a primary goal scorer and forward David Greene is on the list of candidates.
“We’re going to have to be highly organized defensively,” Wade said. “Some of our younger boys are really showing that they can push the older boys for playing time at spots.”
Like Lassiter and Walton, Wheeler lost key players, including its best offensive player in Alden Halseth and defensive player Sergio Mimata. Led by senior defender Rasheel Shah, junior forward Alec Pereira and sophomore midfielder Geinner Duque, speed will be Wheeler’s biggest asset.
“We’re working on more speed and technique, and by the end of the season, we should be right there,” Wheeler coach Salomon Corella said. “We’re still trying to figure out where people are playing.
“I can assure you, by the middle of the season, people will wonder how to play us.”