The Hough boys' soccer team didn't shock anyone for the first 20 games of last season, going 8-12 (6-8 in I-Meck play) to cap a solid regular season and qualify for the playoffs in their inaugural year.
But in the next four games, the Huskies (12-13-1 overall) made a statement as they advanced all the way to the 4A state semifinals.
The Huskies and coach David Smith quickly transformed from a "team of the future" into a contender.
"The way last season ended, a lot of people will think our playoff run was a fluke," said Smith, whose team won nine of their last 13 games. "But we want to prove it wasn't and that has been our motivation all summer long. We want to show that we are one of the best teams (in the state)."
The Huskies should have the talent to do so with senior forward Nathaniel Goodwin, an all-region selection and the team's most valuable player last season, returning up top.
The co-captain had nine goals and 13 assists to lead the team last season. Smith said Goodwin has gotten even better in the offseason as a key member of his Charlotte Soccer Academy team.
All-region midfielder Santiago Pantino, also a senior, should help the Huskies with his organization and field vision creating offensive opportunities.
"We have a lot of talent and experience coming back, which is always good," said Smith. "But we're still a young team that has to be on the same page and play with the focus that we had in the playoffs on more of a regular basis."
While the Hough offense is in good hands, the defense should also be much improved as both Mace Timberlake and Tim Carpenter are back to lead a group that will likely transition into a "flat four" formation.
While Hough proved they were up to the challenge in the playoffs last season, the next step is contending for an I-Meck title with some of the state's top programs in the last decade, including Lake Norman and North Mecklenburg.
"We are proud of what we did last but we have to move on," said Goodwin, who has an offer from UNC Asheville and is interested in UNC Charlotte, Davidson and UNC Wilmington. "This is a new year. We are excited about proving we are one of the best teams again."
Not the only team with something to prove
Lake Norman, which finished last year 16-3-4, 8-3-3, is looking to avenge last year's upset at home by the Huskies in the state quarterfinals.
Coach Jon Mertes, who decided to come back to the Wildcats after stepping down from his duties in the spring, returns a solid core of talent with all-region midfielder Jordan Chillson and Ian Orr leading the way. Big things are also expected of sophomore forward Austin Stevens after starting last year.
North Mecklenburg won the I-Meck last year, but loses a lot of talent, including all-state defender Patrick Harrow. But coach Paul Kikta has talent in seniors Jaron Bradley, a goalkeeper, and John Pouliot, a defender, to build upon.
Hopewell will also have to rebuild a bit, but the Titans will be tough as usual with senior goalkeeper Ryan Santee providing the foundation on a young team.
Mooresville struggled for most of the year, going 4-9-5, but do have talent, like senior Ty Haddock, to make some impact in the conference.
At East Lincoln, coach Jason Dragoon and his team are looking to improve on their 15-7-3 mark. After making a run to the third round of the 2A playoffs, senior forward Rolando Miranda and all-state junior defender Justin Williams will lead the way.
Lake Norman Charter, led by coach Justin Valenti, will hope to stay competitive in the Southern Piedmont conference with the Mustangs.
Davidson Day and Southlake Christian look to improve in their respective private school leagues. The Patriots and all-state senior midfielder Jax Goyette hope to get a boost from new coach Doug London.