By Shawn Wansley
JCJC Sports Information Director
ELLISVILLE – Jones County Junior College men's soccer coach Oleg Baleyev always lays out his expectations for his Bobcats during the first team meeting each August.
"As always, we emphasize what our program is all about," he said. "Hard work, respect and dedication are the foundations of the program. We address the expectations of our players on the field and off the field.
"On the field, our goal is to get into the state playoffs and off the field, our goal is to not miss any classes. To do that, they have to stick with the foundation of the program – hard work, respect and dedication. "
The Bobcats enjoyed some success in 2012.
They ended the regular season on a four-game winning streak, finished second in the MACJC South Division and advanced to the state tournament at Pearl River. They dropped a 1-0 heartbreaker to Holmes in the semifinals.
This season, they will field a team of mostly freshmen, but several key sophomores return, including 2013 team captains JaMarcus Ducksworth, Zack Traylor and Kevin Ndongo. Ducksworth is a forward from Northeast Jones and was All-MACJC last year, as was Ndongo, who is a midfielder from Davidson High School in Mobile, Ala. Traylor is a midfielder from Florence.
"We are starting with 22 players and only six returning sophomores, plus some transfers," Baleyev said. "That's a very large freshmen class for us. JaMarcus, Zach and Kevin are our captains. We ask our captains to show leadership on the field and off the field and I hold them accountable for that."
Other returning sophomores are midfielder Brady Smith of Hancock, forward Austin May of Magee and midfielder Eric Johnson of West Harrison.
Sophomore transfers include Jacob Crawford of Hancock, James Pipper of Pearl River Central and Marcus Dedeaux of Pass Christian.
"All of our returning sophomores played in just about every game last year," Baleyev said. "So we do have some experienced players and we hope that experience can have a positive impact on the games this year."
Incoming freshmen include keepers Cody Anderson of West Lauderdale and Gabe Brown of Lewisburg, forwards Nathan Farrell of South Jones and Cole Smith of Long Beach, forward-midfielder Eddie Ramirez of Biloxi, midfielders Evan Buckley of West Jones, Daylin Britt of Florence and Souleymane Diakite of Baker, La., defenders Tyler Gill and Aaron Stoeger of Biloxi and Reese Sloan of Stone and defender-midfielders Devin Stoeger of Biloxi and Aaron McMillan of Pascagoula.
Baleyev has been pleased with the effort of the newcomers in preseason.
"We have four or five guys who made over 30 on their ACT," he said. "We are excited to have that kind of quality in the classroom and on the field."
Each year, Baleyev schedules scrimmage games to give the players an idea of where they stand going into regular season play. This year, the Bobcats played Belhaven University – the defending NAIA champion – and William Carey University, a perennial NAIA power.
"Those games give our players an idea of the level of play if they are looking to go forward and play at a four-year college," Baleyev said. "So, when we open the regular season, we will be prepared the best way we can because of those scrimmage games. Hopefully, we can win the first game of the season.
"At the same time, it gives us an idea on what we need to work on as a team, through video sessions and breaking down the games."
Baleyev points out that the team has taken a good mental approach to the season, even after falling 8-1 to Belhaven, but they have to overcome a few bumps and bruises.
"I was not happy about the score, but I was happy about with what we got out of the game," he said. "The boys took it positively. They were on the same page with me, knowing that we are trying find and understand ourselves on the best way to perform at each position.
"We have had a couple of injuries that have held some players behind. But we have taken care of that and hopefully they will be OK for our first game.
Baleyey is also excited about the makeup of this year's Bobcats.
"I feel that our team is very strong physically," he said. "We have good size with our guys. They were fit coming into preseason, so we were able to focus more on the tactical aspect of the game."
This season, Meridian Community College will re-enter the MACJC and be a member of the South Division. Baleyev believes the addition of the Eagles, along with usual strong schools Pearl River and Mississippi Gulf Coast, will make the league even more difficult.
"With Meridian coming into the South Division, it brings an additional rivalry to our school," he said. "It's going to be very interesting and very tough in the South this year. On a positive note, three teams from each division will make the playoffs this season.
"Those teams that make it to the playoffs deserve it."
The No. 2 teams from the North and South Division will host the No. 3 teams from the opposite division in a quarterfinal match. The winners will then advance to the MACJC semifinals at the site of the North Division women's champion on Nov. 2 with the championship game set for Nov. 3.
Overall, Baleyev is hopeful his Bobcats can once again make it to postseason play.
"I believe roster-wise we have improved the quality of our players," he said. "Now, we need to prove we can get to the playoffs with this talent."
The Bobcats open the season at home at 7 p.m. on Friday against Itawamba at Bobcat Soccer Field. Baleyev believes it will be a good test for the team, but he knows they will be ready to play.
"We will be fired up for Itawamba because we open with them pretty much every year and the last few years they have beaten us," he said. "I hope we will have a lot of fans and football players to come out and support us on Friday."
Assisting Baleyev again will be Brendan Connolly. Baleyev said it is a major plus to have Connolly as an assistant coach.
"Brendan is a fulltime assistant coach and will continue to work with the goalkeepers," he said. "He can handle anything we can throw at him. It is a huge help to have an extra coach to rely on. He has proven that he is capable of taking the team by himself and complete the task assigned to him."
After Friday's game vs. ICC, the Bobcats travel to East Central on Sept. 4. Their South Division opener will be at home on Sept. 7 vs. Pearl River.