As the Panthers gathered for the start of preseason soccer practice last week, expectations were high.
The Panthers are coming off a winning season that saw them finish strong, posting a 3-1-1 record in their final five games.
Many of the men who helped the Panthers go 7-5-1 in 2021 have returned, while a talented group of newcomers are coming in ready to contribute.
Leading the way is Ryan Dickson, who is in his fifth season as the Panthers' head coach, and he's eager to see his team in action this fall.
"This is the best group we've had since I've been here," Dickson said. "We've got a lot of newcomers coming in. It's a matter of them buying in, and them all gelling together, and I think we'll have a good chance."
The Panthers jumped right into it last week.
Practice began on Wednesday, and the players went at it hard through the weekend, getting on the field as often as three times in one day.
It was a tough stretch for the players, and Dickson felt they handled it well.
"The fitness level has been pretty good for everyone," Dickson said. "The freshmen, they're kind of wanting to set that tone, trying to impress, and everybody else came back pretty fit."
Dickson encouraged his players to join a team during the summer so they'd come into the season as prepared as possible.
"My biggest thing is, there are a lot of summer leagues, and I try to get them to play," Dickson said. "A lot of them know what to do as far as drills and stuff. I try to get them to play as much as they can. People always talk about match fitness. That's different from fitness, fitness. So, if they get to play as much as they can, that's what I recommend for them. You can practice, you can do the runs yourself, but when you get in a game it's different."
The Panthers are hoping to continue the momentum they built toward the end of the 2021 season.
After losing two hard-fought one-goal games, including one in double overtime to Maryville, the Panthers won three of their final five matches while tying once.
In the final game, Robel Teshome scored late in the second half to lift the Panthers to a 2-1 win over Warren Wilson, and that guaranteed a winning season.
Fourteen players who started at least one game last year have returned, and that includes senior Enrique Hernandez, who scored 11 goals last season and has 21 goals for his career.
Also back is senior Blake Webb, who had five goals and eight assists in 2021, and he has 14 career goals.
Joining the veterans are eight freshmen, including Pike County graduate Matthew Webb, who scored more than 50 goals during a memorable senior season.
The Panthers open the season on Sept. 2 at home against Millsaps, and they play their Collegiate Conference of the South opener on Sept. 24 at Maryville.
The Panthers qualified for the USA South tournament in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and they came up just short of reaching the conference tourney last year.
"We've got to get to the next level," Dickson said. "When I first came in, the first couple of years, the goal was just to make the playoffs. We started doing it, and now we've got to win playoff games, and win conference championships. That's the goal."
Sports Information Director Kevin Eckleberry can be reached at email@example.com.