The Havelock boys soccer team faces many new things entering the 2013 season. There are two new Coastal 3A Conference opponents, a new non-conference schedule dotted with state championship contenders, a new state playoff-qualifying system and a new head coach in Jeremiah Johnson.
What isn’t new are the players, as the Rams have 13 seniors to tackle what arguably could be the toughest soccer league in the state.
"It’s going to be more of a challenge," Johnson said of the league. "Overall, I think we have the most dominant conference in the state."
Jacksonville is the defending 3A state champions, and White Oak is a perennial state title contender. New league member Swansboro was a state power in the 1A and 2A ranks, and newcomer Richlands has proven to be competitive over the years with the best of Onslow County soccer.
"It’s going to be a very challenging season, but I think we’ll do well," Johnson said.
Johnson peppered his non-conference schedule with strength as well, such as county rival New Bern, defending state 1A champ Southwest Onslow, former state champ Dixon, and 4A playoff teams Wilmington Ashley and Wilmington Laney.
"The boys wanted to have a challenge, and we have some challenging non-conference games," Johnson said. "We wanted some good games, not throw-aways."
Where the non-conference schedule comes into play is with the new playoff system. Just the league’s top three teams are guaranteed playoff spots. The N.C. High School Athletic Association will fill out the remainder of the bracket based on overall records of teams across the state.
"It puts a lot more pressure on our non-conference games," Johnson said.
But if any Havelock team can face a challenge, it could be this one.
The Rams are loaded with returning players, including standout Noah Kemble, who received an invitation over the summer to play for the academy team of Major League Soccer’s D.C. United. The college recruit has narrowed his choices to George Mason or Appalachian State.
"I’ve got my field general," Johnson said of Kemble, who scored 26 goals last season. "He has a huge role in our offensive attack, whether it comes to making a play or scoring."
Though Kemble won’t have graduated 17-goal scorer Peter Brown with him, he does have returners Kevin Quinn, Omar Gonzalez and Nick Seegel in support. Dylan Baker, who did not play soccer last season, and newcomer Miguel Diaz-Maurino should provide additional help, Johnson said.
Defensively, the Rams will look to senior Zach Martin in goal, with Jason Hollister, Roy Howard and Justin Kilgore looking to stop opposing offenses.
"My whole back is returning," Johnson said. "I’ve got eight defenders and all eight I can rely on. I’m not worried about that, especially with the speed I have on the outside."
Johnson, who assisted head coach Jeff Harris last season, is now running the program and said the transition has been smooth.
"After last season, the guys started coming to my classroom and hanging out because they knew that’s who they were going with next," Johnson said. "We rolled into spring and started doing our workouts in the summer, and it’s been great. It’s been a smooth transition."
The Rams went 13-9-1 last season, finishing fifth in the Coastal 3A Conference. Havelock lost 2-1 in the first round of the playoffs to Southern Nash.
The Rams are scheduled to open their season Monday at Greenville Rose, with the junior varsity beginning at 5 p.m. and the varsity to follow at 6:30 p.m.