By Denise Tucker (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The Lebanon Yellowjackets were young and inexperienced last season, starting eight freshmen and sophomores, but coach Matt Jernigan is hopeful those hard knocks will pay dividends in 2018.
The Yellowjackets finished 5-20 overall and 1-8 in the Ozark Conference, before being knocked out 2-0 by Kickapoo in the first round of the Class 4 District 9 tournament.
“(Last year) was an up-and-down year for us,” Jernigan said. “We had stretches where we showed that we could compete, but we had stretches that were rough, as well. I think the Kickapoo game in districts showed what we were capable of. We were (down) 1-0 with the team that ended up fourth in the state late in the game before giving up a goal in the last five minutes.
“We definitely played our best soccer at the end of the year and are hoping that we can continue that into the 2018 season.”
Gone from last year’s squad are Kaleb Hooper, goalkeeper; Andrew Mills, defender; Cyrus Murray, midfielder and Christian Richards, a midfielder, who will be playing for Trine University in Angola, Ind.
Hooper was a first-team All-OC selection, as well as earning all-district first-team honors and being named the district co-goalkeeper of the year. Murray was an all-conference second-team and first-team all-district pick in 2017.
“Leadership is going to be missed with the 2017 seniors,” Jernigan said. “We had some young men who led our team in the right direction. We will need players to step up and lead this year.”
Lebanon returns just one senior – midfielder Manny Del-Rio Vasquez – two juniors in forward Trey Brown and defender Ethan Murray, and sophomore forward Zach Richards.
“We have the ability to score this year,” Jernigan said. “We have a lot of speed up top and some pieces in the midfield that will be able to distribute to those scorers. If we can put things together, we will be a fun team to watch.”
The newcomers Jernigan will be counting on to make an impact are mostly freshmen and sophomores. Quinton Doughty is a freshman forward; Ryder Rhoades is a freshman midfielder; Angel Pedroza is a sophomore midfielder; Luis Pedroza also is a sophomore midfielder; Evan Rogers is a sophomore defender; and Tanner Wittrock is a senior goalkeeper.
“We have a lot of talent in our freshman and sophomore class,” Jernigan said. “We are excited to get them out there working with the upperclassmen and see what they can do to produce at the varsity level.”
But losing an all-district goalkeeper and two talented defenders will be a challenge for the Yellowjackets.
“We are going to have to replace one of the best keepers in our school’s history in Kaleb Hooper,” Jernigan said. “We know that we are going to have to step up on the defensive end and have a great year from senior keeper Tanner Wittrock. He has been waiting three years to step into the varsity keeper role and he is ready to make his mark on this program.
“We are going to have to find some guys that can anchor our defense. We think we have that in junior Ethan Murray and sophomore Evan Rogers. We will have to be a better team defending this year and know that keeping teams out of the net is going to be our first priority this season.”
Lebanon will participate in a jamboree on Aug. 20 at Camdenton with Bolivar and Branson before opening the season at home, hosting its own tournament Aug. 24-25.
“We hope to be able to compete every night,” Jernigan said. “We play in a very tough Ozark Conference and know that there are no easy wins in that conference. We are excited to see where we stack up with some of the best teams in southwest and central Missouri.”