Last year’s Stephenville High School boys soccer team set a new standard in excellence for the Yellow Jackets as they reached the Region I-4A tournament final for the first time in their history.

Coach Taylor Smith’s Yellow Jacket squad, the 2019 runner-up in District 6-4A, fell in the regional final by a 4-2 margin to San Elizario — which went on to capture its second straight Class 4A boys soccer state crown.

There were 10 seniors lost to graduation last May from that 17-8-4 SHS team, including last season’s district Goal Keeper of the Year, Alfredo Rocha.

“Last year’s team set the bar on the boys side. That’s the farthest any (SHS) boys team had gone,” Smith said of the 2019 season when the SHS Honeybees captured their second state title in three years. “We definitely have a mission (to win state). That’s the goal.”

The Yellow Jackets opened their regular-season schedule in the six-team Liberty Hill Showcase event, Jan. 2-4. They defeated Taylor High School, 1-0 with a goal from Jorge Gallegos in their first game. They followed that with a 0-0 tie with Alvarado, and a 2-0 loss to Midlothian. Their final game in the tournament was a 1-1 tie with Progresso.

This Friday the Jackets will play at Bridgeport (7 p.m.). After traveling back to Liberty Hill for a single game on Jan. 13, next will be the 19th annual Knights of Columbus Challenge of Champions Invitational Soccer Tournament, Jan. 17-18 at the Stephenville Soccer Complex.

SEASON PREVIEW

The 2020 unit will feature eight returning lettermen, including three seniors who were full-time starters last season.

Jorge Gallegos and J.J. Saldana are back after earning first-team all-district honors for 2019. Parker Plaxco, voted as the district’s Newcomer of the Year in 2019, is sidelined with a back injury but expected to return in early February. The other returning starter, Cody Miller, earned all-district honorable mention and Smith noted that he was “a rock for us defensively” last season.

“I definitely think we are young,” said Smith, who is starting his third season as a soccer coach, all at SHS.

He said that the returning players are a talented group, but may have have some growing pains as they learn the ropes at the varsity level.

“We will probably lose some games that we shouldn’t,” Smith concluded, noting the team’s “very tough” non-district schedule, including quite a few games away from home. “I’m sure there will be times we make some silly mistakes and do things young teams do.

“By the time district (games start), we should be in position to make another playoff run. We definitely have leadership to get these guys in position to be successful.”

With graduation taking away the veteran Rocha in goal, the Jackets will have junior Daniel Orornio in the starting role. Standing 5-6, Osornio will have to make up for a lack of great reach with his quickness.

Smith said that the team’s top strength overall will be passing skills.

“We have 11 people that can keep possession, and are comfortable with the ball at their feet,” Smith said. “That gives us the opportunity to control the possession and dictate the speed of play. Most of our returners are on the attacking end. We have the ability to score a lot of goals.”

Senior Eduardo Campos is the lone returner on the defensive side, and Smith noted that the younger players will “have to get used to the speed” of varsity play.

“We have a lot of guys that have grit and fight in them,” he said. “They do work on their own. The put in the time and effort it takes to be great.”

Mineral Wells still has the district’s reigning Most Valuable Player, and will represent a tough obstacle once again.

“I would say we’re the favorite,” Smith said, noting that the Yellow Jackets were the third-ranked team in the region in a preseason poll published by the Texas Association of Soccer Coaches.