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757Teamz boys soccer preview: Cox aims for state title repeat with a new coach, Smithfield heads crowded field at the top

By Jami Frankenberry, The Virginian-Pilot,

Cox's Joshua Haggerty, center, celebrates after defeating Riverside during the Class 5 state championship soccer game at Briar Woods High School on June 11, 2022. Jonathon Gruenke/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS

State title talk: Cox is coming off the program’s first state championship since winning back-to-back crowns in 2009 and ‘10, but the Falcons’ task of matching that repeat will come without its longtime coach. Tabb won the Class 3 state championship last season, but the Tigers opened the season Monday with a 2-0 loss to Kecoughtan in the Keeper’s Cup tournament at Warhill.

New, but familiar face, leads Falcons: Cox sent coach Eric Blackmore into the sunset with a state championship last season. He departed to pursue a career in administration after guiding Cox to 109 wins over 10 seasons. His replacement, Santo Ripa, is a former Falcons junior-varsity coach who was on Blackmore’s staff. Ripa, a First Colonial High grad, played at VMI and has coached club for Beach FC and Virginia Rush. “Coach Blackmore has laid the foundation for a successful program, and I am excited to continue the building process,” Santo said. “We have a target on our back and embrace the pressure.”

Early-season showdowns: The Beach and Southeastern districts will challenge each other early: Cox opened the season Tuesday night against Grassfield, and First Colonial visits Great Bridge on March 23. In the Eastern District, upstart Norview and Maury clash at Powhatan Field on March 29 in a match that should say a lot about both teams. On the Peninsula, the Keeper’s Cup tournament on Monday featured Kecoughtan’s 2-0 victory over Tabb, and Menchville topped Grafton 3-2.

Worth noting: Indian River captain Allessandro Pena returns from a season-ending concussion, and Alan Powell and Aidan Meister return after starting last year as sophomores. ... Poquoson has a host of newcomers, but seniors RB Brown and Ian MacArthur return with junior Baylor Rinck and sophomore Lucas Markley. ... Gloucester graduated 11 seniors as coach Pete LeBel takes over after spending eight years in the program. Kohlby Wilson, a junior, returns, but the Dukes will start three freshmen. ... Salem has just one returning senior, but Christian Lukert and Cory Ruffin are part of a strong junior class that saw plenty of playing time last season. ... Booker T. Washington welcomes back Loic Nignan and Alexis Perez-Martinez, both senior captains who plan to play for Cleveland State, and Avian Roman, a sophomore. ... Tallwood continues its rebuild after a winless 2021 and two-win 2022. Keeper CJ Mainor, James Arisnor and Bruce Marshall are part of a senior class that coach Brad Watahovich hopes can drive the Lions into their first region tournament berth in more than five seasons. ... Granby returns a veteran group, including Diddier Martinez (10 goals), Brock Jordan (eight goals), Caleb Jordan (seven goals) and Nolan Russell (six goals) and keeper Eli Kesser. ... Norview has been gaining ground in the Eastern District and could make it a three-team race with Granby and Maury. ... Manor has its deepest team since before the pandemic, with seniors Christian Baker, Xavier Guerrero, Jeb Bodnar and Alex Hernandez. ... Norcom returns four players from last season, including second-team all-district pick Jamir Buxton and three-year starting keeper LaQuan Roe. ... Oscar Smith graduated a host of key players, so senior Logan Heselton will anchor a young roster that includes fellow returners in junior Alex Dyzla and sophomore Marcus Hernandez. ... Deep Creek returns eight players who saw significant playing time, including seniors Moana Gibson and Mathew Wright and juniors Bowen Dellinger and Elijah Jay.

757Teamz Preseason Top 15

1. Smithfield

The Packers — state Class 4 champs in 2021 and a semifinalist last season — replace 10 graduated seniors with a crop of 11 seniors this year, and coach Jason Henderson said, “We go as far as our seniors take us this year.” Jaylen Marble, an all-state defender last season, is joined by two fellow seniors in midfielders Onesime Muepu (21 goals, 17 assists) and Josh Vincent. The margin for error is slim at the top, and the Packers (17-4-1 overall, 9-1 in the Bay Rivers District last season) will have a fight to stay there.

2. Menchville

The Monarchs, defending Class 5 Region B champs, are expected to return Alex Dierkens, a second-team All-Tidewater pick last season as a junior. He should be joined by Damien and Davian Jackson on a team that opened the season with a 3-2 victory over Grafton on Monday.

3. Cox

A new coach, but the same expectations after the program’s fourth state championship. There was a lot of turnover, but seniors Jace Arcona and David Hartwell and juniors Josh Haggerty and Dax Booth provide some experience. “The energy levels are high, and the boys are excited to get started,” first-year coach Santo Ripa said.

4. Great Bridge

The Wildcats look ready for a run at repeating as Class 4 Region A champs with a strong returning group and some key transfers. Anthony Panayiotou (eight goals) is back with fellow senior Cameron Todd (eight goals, 10 assists), junior Carson Danner (six goals, five assists) and sophomore Nico Panayiotou (five goals, four assists). Freshman Jack Ottley will step into a key role after training at the MLS Academy level.

5. Jamestown

The Eagles are expected to welcome back a host of seniors after falling to Great Bridge in the region semifinals. Max Cooper, a sophomore, was the team’s leading scorer last season, while Peyton Smith was a second-team All-Tidewater pick.

6. First Colonial

The Patriots, hoping to rebound from a 5-5 season in the Beach District, return a young team with only six seniors on the roster. Defender Noah Kephart and fellow juniors Luke Young (seven goals) and Ryan Buckon (nine goals) join senior Diego Armas (10-plus goals).

7. Grassfield

Second-year coach Bradley Killenbeck expects improvement in a veteran team that returns 12 seniors, including a trio of three-year starters who anchor the back line: Jacob Greene, Jaxson Mills and Wyatt Fontaine. Juan Gutierrez (five goals) also returns, along with fellow seniors Luke Shearer, Eduard Hollis-Fares, Jesse Vargas and Jacob Simmons.

8. Hickory

Gavin Page, a first-team All-Tidewater pick, graduated after last season, as did keeper RJ Mackey. But five seniors are back from a team that finished 13-3-1 overall and 7-0-2 in the Southeastern District: Michael Orlando, Alex Kapa, Kade Childers, Evan Rinkus and Jace Williams. “We could be competitive if our youthful [goalkeepers] are quick learners,” coach Mike Gyori said.

9. Kellam

The Knights lost only one player to graduation from last season’s 10-win squad, and nine seniors are expected to start — “which has not happened in a while at Kellam,” coach Craig Powers said. Senior Hamilton Howes (17 goals) will move from midfield to forward, and two second-team all-region picks return in seniors Ayden Cass and Leo Fajardo. Josh Nevin and Trystan Kidd are expected to return from early season-ending injuries.

10. Kecoughtan

The Warriors (13-5-2 last season) welcome back all 11 starters from last year’s state semifinalist team and opened the season Monday with a 2-0 victory over defending Class 3 state champ Tabb. Seniors Joe Summerfield, Colin Skwirut, Bobby Stephens and Ubong Ecop are back with junior Tre’ Barrett.

11. Lafayette

The Rams, state Class 3 tournament qualifiers last season, return 11 starters, including all-state defender Atticus Kamara. Ever Salamanca was the team’s second-leading scorer as a freshman last year, and Daniel Zilla — the only senior projected to start — also returns.

12. Nansemond River

The Warriors graduated 10 starters from last year’s nine-win team, but coach Dustin Tordoff said, “We have some kids ready to make major contributions to our squad.” Senior Dallas Slaughter and juniors Devin Baummer and Nicholas Conboy (seven goals) highlight the veterans.

13. Tabb

Michael Hackworth (13 goals) returns after helping the Tigers win the Class 3 state title. Andrew Fiocca, an All-Tidewater first-team pick, graduated after last season.

14. Landstown

The Eagles reached the state semifinals last season, but must replace All-Tidewater picks Zach Richards and Matt Sabater.

15. Warhill

The Lions finished 10-7 last season and are expected to return midfielders Arvin Picardo and Cameron Bowman.

Five players you should know

Michael Hackworth, Tabb: A first-team All-Tidewater pick last season who finished with 12 goals, including the game-winner in the Class 3 state championship match.

Josh Haggerty, Cox: A second-team All-Tidewater selection returns for his junior season after helping the Falcons win the Class 5 state title.

Hamilton Howes, Kellam: The Knights star, a second-team All-Tidewater selection, scored 17 goals last season as a junior.

Onesime Muepu, Smithfield: The Class 4 Region A Player of the Year and first-team All-Tidewater selection scored 21 goals and had 17 assists for the state semifinalist Packers last season.

Joe Summerfield, Kecoughtan: The prolific scorer netted 43 goals with 15 assists last season and was a first-team All-Tidewater pick.

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