Teammates don’t necessarily have to be friends. The game will go on either way.

But when they are, there’s a symbiotic resolution that shows up on the field of play. When teammates actually like each other, it seems better teamwork is the natural byproduct.

Lorena girls soccer coach Ann Burnside is blessed with just such a team. When the Lady Leopards reconvened for preseason practice in late November, it didn’t feel like a burden or a job. More like a family reunion.

“The girls are very excited, very determined and very focused,” Burnside said. “It’s one of those groups that genuinely likes one another. They like being at practice together, they like hanging out and having fun together. And they’re really determined to go as far as last year – or further.”

Last year, Lorena nearly secured the first state tournament bid in school history, falling just a win shy of that mark with a 5-1 loss to Jasper in the Region III-4A final. And the Lady Leopards possess no less than 15 reasons why a potential breakthrough is imminent in 2019. That’s because they return 15 letter-winners from 2018, including five first-team Super Centex performers.

Lorena buzzed past much of its opposition last year, racking up goals aplenty to win many matches by comfortable margins. Midfielder Katie Burnside not only led Central Texas with 31 goals, but she was equally generous in setting up her teammates, finishing with 39 assists. Forwards McKenzie Tuyo (22 goals), Haley Flores (30) and Kaitlynne Jones (28) all topped the 20-goal mark as well.

But the Lady Leopards came to a sobering realization as the playoffs unfolded. They learned that they needed to get stronger, tougher. When teams pushed, they needed to push back – hard.

“The physical play we encountered in the playoffs was eye-opening,” Ann Burnside said. “So we’ve been doing a better job in practice of trying to body up, to shield off the other team from the ball, to be willing to step up and play a more physical type of game.”

To that end, Burnside front-loaded Lorena’s schedule with rigorous obstacles. The Lady Leopards coach isn’t necessarily worried about replicating last year’s 26-3 record – and they likely won’t, after a 2-2 start against several higher-classification foes in the season-opening Waller Tournament over the weekend – but she’s rather more interested in challenging her players to see where they most need to improve.

“We have to play smarter when we play better competition,” Burnside said. “It forces you to do the right things. Some of those schools are faster, bigger, they’ve been playing soccer all their lives. But when we play at that level, we see that’s the way to do it.”

In addition to Lorena, here are six other Central Texas teams who carry the potential to stretch their seasons deep into the playoffs in 2019.

GIRLS

China Spring – Lorena’s district mate was one of only two local girls teams to reach the third round of the playoffs last year, and the Lady Cougars should be even more comfortable in year two under head coach Hillari Keesee.

Belton – Though the Lady Tigers will have to replace a pair of college signees, they return a rock at goalkeeper in senior Gracie Green.

Midway – Bill Sharp’s program stands out as a playoff constant, and that tradition gets passed from one generation to the next.

BOYS

Mexia – The Blackcats made history last year with their first district championship, then opened the playoffs with an 11-goal effort in a bi-district win.

University – The Trojans return both their top goal scorer (Albert Campbell) and the district’s defensive MVP (Antonio Ledesma), and should be potent.

Midway – Kris Kahler, who built a successful soccer program at Waco High, now gets the chance to maintain one across town.

Don't Miss...