After years of having a dormant program at Sikeston, head coach Derrick Long has turned the program around to an area power in his eighth year at the helm.
"Our goal heading into the season is a district championship," said Long. "That is going to be our goal from now on. We have built a solid program here at Sikeston and we should expect nothing less than a championship. We would love to go to the final four but that is so arbitrary now. It all depends on who you play and in the first round we might play the best team in state or not. It is a toss up."
The Bulldogs won their first district title in 2004 and had their first winning season going 12-11-1 losing in the quarterfinals to Affton.
Last season, Sikeston posted a program record in wins going 13-11 and winning the district title in a hard fought contest over favored Notre Dame. The Bulldogs lost in the quarterfinals to Trinity Catholic, who have since moved down to Class 1.
Being the top dogs can be tough, but Long and his club relish the pressure of staying on top.
"We put a little pressure on ourselves," said Long. "Some of the guys are already talking about getting back to the finals in district and winning it. Championships are won by how hard you work throughout the season. We are going to take one game at a time and hopefully improve with each game. Last year, we thought we would be in rebuilding mode after winning the district title in 2004. The kids improved with each game last season and gelled at the end when it counts the most."
The Bulldogs have lost some quality players from last season including Scott Gardner, Ryan Beaird, Andrew Box and Trey Stone. In addition, Sikeston will be without the services of defender Justin Deere who will miss the season after injuries sustained in an automobile accident.
"We lost some quality players," said Long, "but we still have a strong nucleus of players returning. Sikeston soccer has raised the bar starting a few years back and we want to stay there. Heading into the season who knows if we will be the favorites or not. Notre Dame seems to be, no matter how well we play them in the regular season, they seem to be the favorites heading into district play which is fine with us. We are hosting the district tournament this season and would like to win it here."
The strong nucleus seems to center around the offensive players for the Bulldogs. Seniors Blake Taylor and Chris Carnell are coming off first team All-
District honors from a season ago. Add to the mix sophomore Timmy Hart, who as a freshman made the second All-District squad, Sikeston looks loaded at the forward positions.
"Blake, Chris and Timmy are a force on the field that we have never had at Sikeston," said Long. "Their skills are so much higher than anybody else we have had at Sikeston. They work together perfectly and they have excellent ball touches. We are expecting a lot out of those three. We want each of them to record double-digit goals this season."
Taylor heads into his senior year with big shoes to fill from his sensational junior campaign. Last season, Taylor had 28 goals on 82 shots to lead the team. In addition, Taylor recorded 12 assists and had a team high eight game-winning goals for the Bulldogs.
Carnell will hold down the center midfielder position for Sikeston and will hope to duplicate a fine junior season. Carnell scored six goals on 69 shots last year and recorded 11 assists.
The player that has Long excited early in the season is Hart. Coming off a breakout freshman term, Long believes Hart is due for a sterling sophomore season.
"Timmy had an excellent freshmen season and we expect the same this year," said Long. "Blake came into his own scoring goals in his sophomore year, so we are expecting that out of Timmy. He has already improved so much in the off season it is amazing. Timmy is already one of our best skill players on the team."
A big asset for the Bulldogs will be the play of junior Scott Droddy in goal. Last season, Droddy logged most of the time in goal and recorded 288 saves out of 366 shots his way. Droddy also recorded seven shutouts for Sikeston last year.
"Droddy is looking great in goal," said Long. "His lateral movements in goal are much quicker as is his footwork. He has worked out real hard in the off season and has improved his conditioning and overall strength."
If the Bulldogs are to have a successful year, they will have to work on their midfield play according to Long.
"Our biggest question marks, as it always seems to be, is at the midfield position," said Long. "We are not real deep there and we will have four guys battling for two positions. The competition is there and we are starting to come around. We will know more after a few games."
Sikeston's defense, although not deep in numbers, looks solid heading into the season. Led by Hunter Dillender, Dakota Trevino and Adam Gillean, the Bulldogs have experience in front of Droddy throughout the season.
"We pretty much got all of our defense back in Hunter, Dakota and Gillean," said Long. "Add Jacob Owens who was injured much of the season last year and we will be pretty solid defensively."
Dillender made his mark last season in the district title game, as he shadowed Notre Dame's leading scorer Frankie Ellis the whole match and shut him down.
"We will move Hunter over to the center defender position which will be new for him," said Long. "He is just a workhorse who works hard every day and we will be solid in the middle defense. Dakota is going to build on his performance at state where he was simply amazing. With Gillean at sweeper, we are going to be tough in front of the goal."
The Bulldogs will have a stout regular season schedule with some tough conference games and tournaments at Notre Dame and Owensboro, Ky.
"Our conference is tough every year with Notre Dame, Cape Central, Jackson and Poplar Bluff," said Long. "None of those teams will ever have a down year and it is going to be a challenge. We start the year with Hillsboro and we have not played them since 1999 so we don't know what to expect from them."
Sikeston and Notre Dame appear to be the front-runners in Class 2, District 1 that will also include DeSoto, Festus, Fredericktown, and Windsor. Farmington will also be in the district, replacing Hillsboro who has been moved to Class 3.
Sikeston travels to Hillsboro on Monday for the season opener with jayvee action starting at 4 p.m.