The Times-Union highlights top teams and players to watch across the Jacksonville area for high school boys soccer in 2019-20.
Fleming Island: Always dangerous and only three years removed from a state title, the Golden Eagles should keep the ball moving crisply with the midfield combination of Evan DiPaula and Garret Godfrey, the latter coming off a season of clutch performances on the football field. Fleming Island also returns starter Trystan Ayers, a strong fullback from last year's squad, and adds a promising senior in Nathan Testa and a fast-rising sophomore prospect in Noah Eaton.
Fletcher: The Senators are loaded with seniors and primed for yet another deep run after exiting the state tournament in the semifinal to Auburndale. Four regulars from the 2017-18 state finalists are here: Brian Schaefer, the playmaker whose skills helped steer Fletcher to the title game, returns to high school competition, while Van Slabicki raids up the wing, Will Sylvan anchors midfield and Connor Moore, in his third year as starter, steadies the central defense. There's no easy way to replace T-U player of the year James Schaefer up front, but Zach Tretler is in line to get the first chance to assume the role of the hard-charging striker.
Mandarin: The strength of the Mustangs flows right down the middle. Dejan Pajkanovic brings tough tackling technique and composure on the ball to the defense, while the combination of Adel Iriskic (12 goals, eight assists from midfield last year) and Amar Mesic coordinates the center of the field. The attack isn't quite as tested, but the Mustangs are looking for the sophomore pair of Pedro Alarcon and Flori Avullija to take over the scoring duties.
Nease: Probably Northeast Florida's top all-around defender last season, fourth-year starter Jack Dearie returns for one more year in Panthers green on a team that moves into an uncompromising District 1-8A (Bartram Trail, Flagler Palm Coast, Mandarin, Oakleaf and Sandalwood). He scored four goals and eight assists last year, leading the team from the back. Midfield creativity is in good hands with senior Savio Palushi, superb on dead balls and coming off a 16-goal year. The next task is finding a consistent finisher up front.
Ponte Vedra: Ready to chomp. The Sharks enter the year with a formidable attacking punch, spearheading a squad that reached the state semifinal before losing on penalties to Daytona Beach Seabreeze. There's no easy way to defend this team. David Morales (16 goals, eight assists) and Nico Gosendi (eight goals, 10 assists) both have the skills to run the play from midfield and challenge opponents one-on-one, while Jack McBrayer and Henry Carpenter return to cause havoc from wide.
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F Brandon Diaz, Jr., Stanton: Coming off a playoff visit, Stanton could be set for further gains, and Diaz is one big reason. As a sophomore, he produced an immediate impact with nine goals and three assists in only 12 games, and he's been scoring steadily in preseason as well. He may not need to score many: Ethan Alesch and keeper Andrew Zalewa command a defense that should be among the best in the Gateway Conference.
F Mason Doherty, Sr., Episcopal: Every sign points to the senior finishing among near the top of Jacksonville's scoring charts in 2019-20. Doherty tallied 19 goals and six assists during his junior year, and he's got the physical tools and finishing touch to top the 20-goal mark if all goes right. The Eagles also return a fine keeper in Mitch Fenton, who allowed less than a goal per game last year.
M Alex McAninely, Sr., Bishop Kenny: Versatile and energetic, McAninely scored 18 goals last year for a Crusaders team that thrives on relentless effort. He links up with 14-goal junior Sean Meisler in midfield, while transfers Aidan Lipovetsky, Rafael Montalvo and Martin Pineiros should boost the Bishop Kenny attack.
D Colby McCrone, Sr., Creekside: A powerful anchor at the back for the Knights, McCrone heads up a durable defense for Creekside in District 3-6A, which also includes Fleming Island and Fletcher. With McCrone standing guard in front of the net and keeper Dean Jamsheedy along the goal line, the Knights possess a durable barricade for opponents' attacks, while Jacob McLeod leads the way as a direct finisher who notched 13 goals in 2018-19.
M Alonso Munoz, Sr., Bolles: The Bulldogs must replace a lot of talent, including four-time top scorer Frank Iturriaga, but with Munoz and Eli Gordon returning to high school competition from the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, they're regaining two key weapons from the 2017-18 state final squad. Bolles also returns Tyler Park in defense, Caleb Cohill in the net and Nick Bengermino along the wing.