The Hannibal boys soccer team has achieved a rare feat even before the whistle blows for the first match of the 2017 season.
All 11 Pirate starters from a year ago are back.
With a strong core intact, coach Eric Hill’s squad enters the season with renewed hopes of claiming the North Central Missouri Conference crown and making a playoff run.
“As long as we keep our focus,” senior goalkeeper Gabe Falconer said. “We can’t think everything is going to be handed to us this season. We’ve got to continue to work for it. We’re not as good as we can be. We definitely need to be better.”
Falconer and a stingy defensive unit backed up forward Cory Allensworth and his 21 goals for a 15-10 record in 2016. The Pirates finished third in the NCMC before falling to St. Dominic in the first round of the district tournament.
Just as last season’s ups and downs gave the Pirates valuable experience, this summer’s workouts proved there remains plenty of internal competition before the season opener Aug. 18.
“The starting 11 are back,” Hill said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean the starting 11 is going to all be the same. We’ve got some good competition in some spots. I honestly anticipate there will be a couple different starters than what we had last year, but I believe we have 13, at least, that could be at some point in the season a starter.”
Hannibal’s depth includes 10 rising seniors setting the tone and seven more juniors who have risen through the program.
“The juniors and seniors now have been starting as freshmen and sophomores, so they’ve got that experience at the varsity level for a few years already,” Hill explained.
Junior Adam Albright, who played center midfield the past two years, expects to move to forward and join Allensworth up top.
“He played there quite a bit this summer, and he did a real nice job for us,” Hill said of Albright. “He’s just a workhorse up top and has a nose for the goal.”
Albright, who readily admits he likes playing forward “a lot better,” is confident he and Allensworth will be in tune offensively to lead the experienced Pirates.
“We have one of the strongest squads I’ve played with,” Albright said. “Probably the strongest I’ll ever play with. If we just stay on track and don’t mess up and stay focused, I think we’ll have the best season we’ve had in a long time.”
Allensworth broke the team single-season record with 25 assists in 2015. He mentioned he will contribute in whatever ways the team needs.
“I’m really just there for the team, for the win, whatever I’ve got to do,” he said. “If nobody’s really scoring, then I’ll try to score. But if people are making the good runs, then I’ll get them the ball so we can win.”
Colton Brown and Caleb Ketsenburg are expected to control possession at the center midfield spots. The rest of the midfield remains less clear.
There are a host of contenders for the pair of outside midfield spots. Collin Poage, Nathan DeStefane, Kabren Robinson and Brice Terrill may all see time in that capacity.
“Those are the ones where we’ve got the competition going big-time,” Hill said.
Hannibal’s defense is primed to be its backbone. Falconer will start in goal, supported by a cast of defenders featuring 2016 All-NCMC returners Keaton Bartz and Trenton Roland.
“Our defense is all back,” Hill said. “Those guys are all pretty set where they’re at. Gabe had a tremendous year for us last year, so he’s going to be back in net for us. With (junior) Jake Riefesel, who was second-team all-conference his freshman year, we’ve got three guys who have been all-conference, and Lucas Brown is a fourth who just joined us last year as a junior and played really well.
“I feel like our defense definitely has the potential to be one of the strongest if not the strongest in the conference.”
That’s not to say there won’t be some stiff competition in the NCMC. Marshall beat Hannibal in both 2016 meetings, while Boonville split the teams’ season series.
“We’ve got to focus on not buying into too much that since we’ve got everybody back that we’re just automatically better than the teams that we’ve played or that we’re even going to stay above the teams we were above last year,” according to Hill. “What we were last year was good enough to be 15-10. We expect to be better than that this year, but we’re going to have to continue to work.”
With eyes set on the postseason, that’s a message Falconer and Co. are taking to heart in their mission to make it beyond the first round of the district tournament. Nemesis St. Dominic has ended Hannibal’s season in districts four of the past five years.
“We’ve got a lot of really smart guys and a lot of really strong guys, so I think we can continue to get better throughout the whole season,” the goalkeeper said. “Especially toward the end of the year, we need to get our mind right once districts start to come around. We need to get focused. We haven’t made it out of the first round of districts for three or four years, and that would be awesome. I would like to win our district.
“If we can beat (St. Dominic) — we’ll probably play them first round, we have forever — it’d be awesome to beat them because we’d for sure have a chance of winning our district.”