After serving as Bobby Alexander’s assistant, Brian Burkett took the helm as head coach of Port St. Joe’s boys soccer team, and he expects that this season “will be full of challenges and excitement.”
Last year’s team finished as regional runner-up with a 14-9 record, “the furthest that any Port St. Joe soccer team has ever been,” said Burkett.
Despite losing eight seniors from last year’s squad, Burkett remains optimistic, because “the overall core of this team over the past two years has primarily been made up of the current juniors and seniors.”
Jaydon Gant and Christian Peacock are this year’s seniors, while Estevan Angel, Taylor Burkett, Lance Larry and Fisher Vandertulip are juniors.
“Last year’s senior defensive line will surely be missed,” said Burkett, “especially Porter Hodges, Ashton Burkett, Gage Medina and Justice Peacock; however, this year’s defensive line (made up of) Angel and sophomore Grant Bartley as the primary center backs has demonstrated their potential during the past travel ball season.”
Burkett noted that Larry and Taylor Burkett “will continue their roles as the driving force in the center midfield positions, managing the team’s style of play and overall pace.”
Gant, who led last year’s team in scoring with 27 goals, is expected to “continue taking lead, (but) he will be sharing his role as lead striker with freshman Josiah Beach,” Burkett added.
Another player Burkett singled out is Vandertulip, “our returning net-minder, (whose) overall athleticism and stature make for a menacing goalkeeper, instilling confidence in his team (and) allowing them to be more attack-minded.”
Although exuding enthusiasm about his team, Burkett added that “this upcoming season will be one of the most challenging seasons Port St. Joe has ever had,” due to a tougher schedule against mostly larger opponents as high as 6A.
“We have very few matches against our Division 2A teams,” Burkett said. “The more challenging schedule will likely better prepare us for the postseason.”
Citing soccer’s growing popularity, Burkett said that the overall culture of soccer has improved significantly in Port St. Joe. A record 36 boys show up at tryouts.
“That sort of culture ensures continuity over the next several years,” he said. “We look forward to many years of success.”
Because of such a large number of players, Burkett brought Marcell Duarte into the fold as his assistant coach and added Bo Spring and Bryan Trochessett as JV coaches.
Burkett scheduled pre-season matches for Tuesday, November 1 at Wakulla and Thursday, November 3 at home against Mosley. The Mosely contest is scheduled to kick off at 5 p.m..
The regular season for both boys and girls teams begins on Tuesday, November 8, at Taylor County High School.
The teams then travel to Jefferson County on Thursday, November 10, before having their first home match on Saturday, November 12, hosting Bay High School. Against Bay, the girls play at Noon, with the boys following at 2 p.m..
Similar to the boys, the Tiger Shark girls soccer team graduated eight seniors from last season’s squad, and it will field a much more youthful group for the season opener on November 8 at Taylor County.
“We’re going from eight seniors to two,” said Shark head coach Justin Gerlach, “and (we) have only two juniors.”
One of the two seniors, Jesslyn Kuhnel, was part of the USA para international team that won gold at the inaugural 2022 International Federation of Cerebral Palsy Football World Cup for women in Salou, Spain, this past May, as reported in the Star.
Kuhnel is joined by fellow senior Jasslyn Raffield. Maya Itzkovitz and Abigail Jacob are the two juniors on the team.
“With losing that many seniors, we’re obviously going to be a younger team than we were, but not only were those players old in age but most had been in the program since they were in the seventh grade,” said Gerlach, starting his fourth year as girls head coach, “so we lost a lot of experience as well.”
“Fortunately,” he said, “last year was one of those years that we had one of the largest turnouts that we’ve ever had for the team, so I do have a good number of returning players, even though some of them don’t have a lot of experience.”
As a result, Gerlach expects that “it’s going to be a very challenging year for us, and I’ve made it more complicated by scheduling some bigger schools to play this year.”
Even so, “I wouldn’t say that we’re rebuilding,” said Gerlach. “We’re certainly an established program, and we should be very competitive on the field.”
“We’re working,” he added, “but there’s no 30-goal scorer on the team,” referring to Rebecca Maddox, who is now playing soccer on scholarship at Division III Goucher College in Towson, Maryland.
“We’ve got some good, new players out this year,” he said, along with “a lot of good returning players. So, I have a good feeling about this year, realistically speaking. I don’t expect us to go out and be a world beater by any stretch, but I have confidence in the players we have.”
“Every year that they’re in our system, they’re getting more experience. They’re getting that much better, so I feel we have a good platform to build on,” he said.
Assisting Gerlach build on that “good platform” will be assistant coaches Celeste Chiles and Lyndsey Alston. In addition, he has also added his spouse, Alyson, to help with team conditioning.
“She’s a licensed trainer specializing in youth, so she offered to help with strength training, flexibility, and some other things that will help in the long run,” said Gerlach.
“We have a long season,” he said, “so we’re trying to build them up to be better athletes.”
A structural improvement that fans will notice, and players will appreciate, is the addition of new locker rooms and concession stand at the Sam Cox Complex.
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