Soccer storylines: What to watch for in 2024 high school season

Feb. 3—It's almost soccer time in Soccertown.

On Monday, high school soccer officially kicks off in Georgia, and the teams from in and around what has become known as Soccertown, USA, will take the field in pursuit of a state championship.

Whitfield and Murray counties had three state championship winners in 2023 in the boys teams from Dalton, Coahulla Creek and Christian Heritage. Those three will try to stay on top, while a host of other local teams have state aspirations heading into 2024.

Will Dalton, Coahulla Creek or Christian Heritage go back-to-back?

Whitfield County boasted the state championship in three of the eight classifications in the state on the boys side in 2023, with Dalton winning its seventh state title, Coahulla Creek winning its second and Christian Heritage breaking through for its first Georgia High School Association title by winning Class A Division II. Each of the six high school boys soccer programs in the county now have a state title to their name.

Can the trio do it again?

Dalton loses last year's Dalton Daily Citizen Player of the Year Zeke Ortiz to graduation, but the Catamounts bring back a lot of a young roster around Ortiz that helped the Catamounts to a title last year.

The other two defending champs are in a similar spot, having to replace some key members of the roster.

Two stalwart seniors, Anthony Mendiola and Saul Barcenas, left Coahulla Creek after helping the Colts to their second title in three seasons, as well as a few other contributors. Miguel Arredondo, a 19-goal scorer as a junior last year, is back to help lead the Creek attack.

Christian Heritage loses a class of nine seniors from its inaugural state championship team a year ago, including offensive dynamic duo of Peter Pridgen and Marco Arostegui, who combined for 49 goals and 22 assists last season. Senior Carson Russell, who had 11 goals and 13 assists last year, is back for the Lions.

Will the other recent state champs get back on top?

Southeast Whitfield's boys were looking for a three-peat in 2023 and The Dalton Academy boys were looking for back-to-back titles a season ago after winning one in the school's first season of play in 2022.

Both schools fell short, but both figure to have sights on a return to state contention in 2024.

Southeast graduated a handful of Region 7-4A first teamers from last year, including Jerry Favela, Angel Garcia, Leo Barajas and Diego Castillo.

Asher Griffith takes over the reins of The Dalton Academy this season after serving as an assistant for the Pumas under Rury Alvarez in the school's first two seasons.

Northwest Whitfield, which last won a state title in 2018, is also aiming to get back on top. The Bruins beat out Southeast for the Region 7-4A title last year after the two schools played in an all-Whitfield Class 4A state title game in 2022. The Bruins lose all-state performer Nico Cuna, who is now playing for Dalton State College.

Will a local girls team break through for a state title?

Every boys team from Whitfield County has now won a state championship, but the girls programs within the county are still looking for that state breakthrough.

It's getting closer.

The girls teams from Coahulla Creek, Dalton and Northwest Whitfield all reached at least the second round of the state playoffs in 2023, and Southeast and Christian Heritage both made the playoffs. Northwest made back-to-back runs to the Final Four in 2021 and 2022. Creek's appearance in the Sweet 16 was its second straight trip to the second round, and Dalton was within seconds of advancing to the Elite 8 last year before a late winner in overtime by Northview.

Dalton graduated last year's Daily Citizen Player of the Year Issela Briceño, but has several key pieces back. Coahulla Creek had three members of the Region 6-3A team that were sophomores or younger a year ago in leading scorer Natalie Brito, Lilli Johnson and Megan Ramsey. Northwest had four Region 7-4A first teamers set to be back in Meryl Clark, Sadie Clark, Sophia Hargis and Lexi Lyon. Southeast loses leading goal-scorer Lesley Alanis, now starring for Dalton State.

Is it time for a team from Murray County to break through?

The boys programs in Whitfield County have won state titles, but the girls and boys teams across the Conasauga River in Murray County are still searching for state glory.

Both Murray County and North Murray's boys programs reached the Class 2A playoffs before facing first-round exits a season ago. North Murray finished second in Region 7-2A, while Murray was third.

North Murray will have to replace the production of graduated Uriel Marquez, who left North Murray as the school's all-time leading scorer. Murray will have a new coach in 2024, with Bryan McBrayer taking over the program from former head coach Marco Burgueno.

North Murray's girls hosted a playoff game for the first time in school history last year, while the Murray County girls made a playoff appearance for the first time in program history in 2023.