ROCKINGHAM – As he enters his 30th, and final, season as the Richmond Senior High School’s boys soccer coach, Bennie Howard has developed a winning tradition. And he hopes it doesn’t stop now.
The Raiders boys soccer team, which consists of 26 varsity and 22 junior varsity players, is coming off one of the best seasons in program history. As the reigning Southeastern Conference champions, a title it also split in 2014 with Pinecrest High School, the 2017 Raiders are looking to match its undefeated conference play from last season.
Starting the road to defending the title consisted of a three-week series of voluntary summer workouts, where roughly 60 boys attended each session. With an overwhelming 78 athletes participating in tryouts from July 31 to August 2, Howard attributes the winning reputation as piquing the interest of so many players.
Last season’s mark of 15-3-2, good enough for the outright conference title, isn’t an expectation Howard and the Raiders see as daunting. Instead, they see it as something they can do again, and focusing on the task at hand is an essential part of the process
“Our boys continue to grow their confidence,” Howard said as his players worked on agility drills in RSHS’ gymnasium. “We have a high-quality team. We have a bullseye on our back this year. Not only will the upper echelon teams in our conference be shooting for us, but we’re going to have to come every day with the mindset of playing one game at a time.”
With the help of junior varsity head coach Chris Larsen, and assistant coaches Vince Paparella and Daniel Webb, Howard requires his players to undergo an intense regimen of physical conditioning to prepare for games. In conjunction with this, the Raiders work daily on fundamentals (passing and trapping), and focus heavily on tactical aspects of the game, too.
“We’ve got the talent to make another run at a conference title,” Howard said. “Conditioning and fundamentals are key. Even though we have good soccer players, I want them to work on these every day to get better and stronger.”
The Raiders currently have some spots to fill on the varsity team, and maybe none is more important than the keeper. Four players are battling for the position: seniors Marcos Acosta, Ben Morrison and Yash Patel, as well as junior Jackson Haley. It is uncertain as of Wednesday who will be between the posts at the start of the season.
Returning are senior center backs Nick Pearson and Zane Ritter, both of whom Howard has confidence in to lock down things defensively, as there is a need to fill both outside defender positions. The same confidence goes for 2016 all-conference midfielders Victor Lucero and Carter Robeson, who bring quality leadership to the pitch. Both outside midfielder positions also need filled.
Also returning to wear the Richmond crest for his senior year is Carlos Alcocer, who earned recognition as an all-conference player in 2016. Alcocer was also named the SEC’s player of the year, and was named to the all-state team. He netted 24 goals for the Raiders last season. Howard expects great things from all his returners, but is especially excited to see Alcocer keep putting shots at the back of the net.
Richmond has its first scrimmage on Thursday, August 10, as they will host North Moore High School at 6:30 p.m. The 20-game regular season officially begins Tuesday, August 15, as the Raiders will travel to St. Pauls High School in Robeson County for a non-conference matchup.
As it is no secret that Howard will hang up his coaching cleats at the end of the 2017-18 school year, he hopes to enjoy every second of this season.
“I hope the boys can repeat as conference champions,” Howard said. “That would great to go out on top. But no matter what happens, I’ll be satisfied as long as we put the effort forward. It’s going to be a bittersweet season (for me). I want to go out with a smile on my face.”