After losing 11 seniors and seven starters from last year’s team that stood in first place in its region standings when the season was scrapped due to the coronavirus pandemic, Apalachee boys’ soccer coach Chad Hooper expects that his team will be feeling its way through things early on in the 2021 pandemic as the Wildcats look to players to step up and compensate for the loss of enormous offensive and defensive production.

“Being in a brand-new region (GHSA 8-AAAAA), I’m not really sure where we fit yet, to be honest,” said Hooper, whose team dropped its preseason scrimmage 3-1 at Wesleyan on Friday, Jan. 29, and was scheduled to travel to Buford for its regular-season opener Tuesday, Feb. 2.

Among the hardest losses to graduation to absorb for the Wildcats are likely to be attacking midfielder Nestor Perla (12 goals, 11 assists in 13 matches last season), goalkeeper Ronal Galindo (4 shutouts), center back Arturo Juarez and midfielder Jorge Bazan (10 goals, 6 assists).

“Players like that are just very difficult to replace, and we’re going to have some younger players starting this year who will need to pick up the slack,” Hooper said. “We’re starting a freshman this year and a couple sophomores and maybe more after the game Friday. We looked kind of young, and we’re going to be in a tough region.”

While the scoring will likely be spread more around this year, the Wildcats should get a boost from senior forward Corbin Cutter, who has started since he was a freshman but missed last season with an ACL injury. A nagging shin injury was likely to keep Cutter out of the first couple of matches this season, Hooper said. Martin Ramirez, Jared Romero, Anthony Bonilla, Steven Flores, Victor Vaca and Jesse Alungulesei will be among some of the other key players in the lineup. Meanwhile, senior Payton Honeycutt takes over in goal for Galindo.

The Wildcats have five more matches scheduled, including their home opener at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5, against Oglethorpe County, before they open their seven-match region slate at Greenbrier on Feb. 26. Hooper expects Johnson, Clarke Central and Eastside, all of whom the Wildcats have played regularly in recent years, to be difficult contests, while Greenbrier has also traditionally been a playoff team.

“We have some good, quality players; we’re just young overall,” Hooper said. “I was telling the guys after Friday’s scrimmage, it’s really a mostly new team and you can’t expect to go out there and jell right away. But it’ll come and hopefully we get things figured out before region.

“We have a few extra (matches) this year before region play starts, so that’s what we’re hoping.

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