Coming off the program’s highest win total in four years, optimism is running high with a strong core of returnees and a solid incoming class for the 2008 season. The Rattlers fielded a young squad in 2007, with more than half its starting lineup consisting of underclassmen. The youthful enthusiasm of that group was an asset at home as the Rattlers went 7-2 at St. Mary’s Soccer Field, including wins over Incarnate Word and St. Edward’s. However on the road, the Rattlers struggled, going 1-9. They seemed almost snakebit away from home, dropping four matches by a single goal and two more by just two goals.
“The key for this season is to be more consistent,” head coach Que Willis said. “We played great in San Antonio last year. This year we need to be able to leave San Antonio and win.”
This season, with a favorable slate of home games, and one of the best teams in recent years returning for the Rattlers, Willis hopes to lead the Rattlers back to the top of the Heartland Conference.
“I like the experience we have coming back,” Willis said. “We know what it takes to compete at the top of Heartland Conference. Now we just have to go out there and do it.”
The Rattlers were hit hard by graduation up front, losing Kris Sumter, Scott Kilpatrick and Chris Smith. However, David Peterson (So., Saginaw) led the Rattlers in scoring, despite playing in just 12 games, and returns to lead the Rattler scoring attack this season.
“The forward spot was where we were hit the hardest by graduation,” Willis said. “We don’t have anyone returning who has consistently scored for us, besides David. We have a lot of players who are capable; we just don’t know who that will be right now.”
Peterson made a major impact in his first season with the Rattlers, scoring eight goals in just 12 games, including three game-winners. He led the Heartland Conference in goals per game despite his limited play.
Aaron Strother (Jr., McKinney), now in his third season with the Rattlers, played in 17 games and is looking for bigger things in 2008. Senior Bryon Plagge (Sr., San Antonio) will play both up front and in the midfield this season after tallying three goals and five assists as a junior.
Two other players had strong first seasons with the Rattlers and will be counted on even more this season. Octavio Rodriguez (So., Cibolo) played in 16 games off the bench, while Joaquin Rangel (So., Houston) saw action in seven games as a freshman.
Junior Adam Villanueva (Jr., DeSoto) red-shirted last season and should add depth up front. Daniel Kelly (Fr., Tucson, Ariz.) is a freshman with an impressive resume who could make an impact this season.
The midfield is one area that Willis feels good about heading into 2008. With Plagge back as a starter, and Rodrigo Ramos (So., The Woodlands), Sean Strater (So., Carrolton), Luis Gonzalez (So., El Paso), Rodriguez and Villanueva leading the way, the Rattlers are athletic and deep in the midfield.
“We have a lot of good midfielders on the team, which is a nice luxury,” Willis said. “That’s probably the position I have the least concerns with. The starter at center midfield will be a tough decision, because we have a lot of good candidates.”
Strater saw action in 13 games last year as a freshman, Ramos played in 18, making seven starts and Gonzalez made three starts while playing 17 games.
Defense is another area of strength for the Rattlers, who lost just two starters, Luke Smith and Chris Vaughn, in the backfield. Back to lead the Rattlers on defense are starters Kyle Farrell (Jr., Edmond, Okla.) and Robson Pritchett (So., McKinney). Also returning to battle for playing time are Funmilola Dada (Sr., Houston), Daniel Sanguietti (So., Tucson, Ariz.) and Matthew Turner (Sr., McKinney).
Farrell has established himself as one of the top defenders in the Heartland Conference and was recognized as such last season, earning All-Heartland Conference honors for the first time. He played in all 19 games and tallied two goals.
Pritchett worked his way into the starting lineup as a freshman, playing in 16 games. With the loss of Smith, Pritchett will be one of the players asked to pick up the slack defensively.
Dada is back for his third season with the team. Injuries have limited him in his first two years, but Willis has high hopes for Dada in 2008. Sanguietti was a key reserve in 2007, playing in 11 games off the bench. Turner had his best season to date in 2007 and looks for even more this season.
“Our only loss in the back was Luke, which hurts, but I think that we have the players to step up and take his place,” said Willis.
Willis has the luxury of two experienced keepers in goal again this season. Junior Brett Collier (Jr., Schertz) was limited to just six games last season due to injuries, giving senior Jayson Horn (Sr., San Antonio) the opportunity to shine in the net.
Horn took full advantage of his opportunity last season, going 7-5 as the starting keeper, including both shutouts the Rattlers produced last season. For his play he was named Heartland Conference Defensive Player of the Week.
Collier had a forgettable 2007 season after earning All-Heartland honors as a freshman in 2006. He did post a solid 1.82 goals-against average with 26 saves in just six games before being lost for the season. With his injuries healed, he looks to return to form this season.
“Jayson really stepped up last year and helped us with Brett out,” said Willis. “Brett is a great keeper and I’m very excited to have two talented players in net for us this season.”
The highly-competitive Midwest Region will present a stiff challenge again to the Rattlers this season. In addition to their Heartland Conference competition, they will face two teams that advanced to the NCAA postseason.
Incarnate Word edged out St. Edward’s to win the conference title in 2007, despite just splitting the season series against the Rattlers. St. Mary’s also went 1-1 against the Hilltoppers, showing that they could play with the best in the league last season. Again this year the Heartland will be one of the top conferences in NCAA Division II, with the Rattlers looking to battle for the top spot.
In addition to their tough conference slate, the Rattlers will play Midwestern State, West Texas A&M, Northeastern State, Eastern New Mexico and Division III Hardin-Simmons. St. Mary’s will have 10 games at their home facility, where they went 7-2 last season.
The Rattlers will find out how good they are very quickly. They host the 2008 Midwest Region Tournament participant, Midwestern State, to open the season on Aug. 29 at 2 p.m. at St. Mary’s Soccer Field.