Bishop Kenny: The Crusaders reached the Class 2A state semifinal last year and could go even further this time. It starts in the heart of the midfield with fourth-year starter Luka Gjuraj, who conducts the midfield smoothly and combines well with seniors Camilo Ramirez and Patrick Kiely on the outside. They’re also solid in the net with senior Nick Sikorski, the penalty-saving hero of the 2017 regional final against Florida High. The key will be shoring up the defense for Kenny’s grueling schedule, which includes Flagler Palm Coast, Ocala Trinity Catholic, Bishop Moore, Berkeley Prep and Tallahassee Chiles, plus strong district foes Bolles and Episcopal.
Fleming Island: The Golden Eagles soared to the Class 4A state championship last season, and have a shot to become Northeast Florida’s first back-to-back boys champion since Nease in 2007 and 2008. That’s no surprise for a team that has Florida’s reigning Mr. Soccer, Reed Davis, coming back to the attack. The Jacksonville University-committed striker, scorer of 50 goals last season, returns to the front line alongside Marcus Murphy (South Florida) in an offensive pairing that’s among the best in the state. Also back are key building blocks on defense in Brad McMahon and Noah Hamlett, along with keeper Omar Zermeno and midfield playmaker Connor Davis.
Fletcher: It’s never wise to write off the Senators, especially when they return this many senior starters. Striker Patrick Wendell, who hit double figures in goals and assists last year, leads the forward line, with Jordan Mackey providing energy from outside and Grant Patton, Bryce Deighan and Brayden James all strengthening the Fletcher defense. But there’s also young talent in midfielders Van Slobicki and Bryan Schaefer. That could give the Senators the edge in a District 3-4A that also includes Atlantic Coast and Englewood, with just two to qualify.
Mandarin: This feels different - is defense leading the Mustangs this season? Maybe. Senior Carson Sapp, committed to JU, is a third-year starter who ranks among the area’s top defenders. Goalkeeper Armin Cordic, too, showed great promise while working his way into the lineup as a freshman in 2016. But there’s also the usual attacking punch, where all-around athlete Alex Pappadis returns to bring speed to the front line and junior Ammar Dukic has been scoring in preseason. It won’t be easy in District 1-5A, where the Mustangs must fend off a fast-rising Sandalwood.
Ponte Vedra: They won a Class 3A title in 2016 and reached the state semifinal last year, so there’s every reason to expect the Sharks to contend once more. Forward Steven Sifontes, scorer of 12 regular season goals, has an accurate touch on free kicks. In goal, Brian Salzman opens his third year the net. Ponte Vedra’s biggest challenge will be stabilizing a defense that lost anchor Carson King, but junior Michael Gambuzzo and senior Michael Hwang picked up solid experience last year and could form the back line’s new backbone.
M Zane Bubb, Sr., Creekside: Ranging from box to box and sideline to sideline, the senior ignites the Knights. He scored 20 goals and 17 assists last season as the key man on the field for Creekside. Bubb joins Renaldo Orozco and River Guthrie as returners in a midfield that should contend for a District 4-4A playoff spot.
M Ethan Dudley, Sr., Bartram Trail: The high-scoring senior, in his third year as a starter, netted 25 goals last season. He joins speedster Zech DaPaah in a pairing that combined for 49 goals in 2016-17. The Bears may need every one of those goals to emerge from a packed District 4-4A, which also includes Creekside, Fleming Island, Nease and Oakleaf.
F Andrew Henderson, Sr., Oakleaf: Some attackers specialize at finishing, others at setting up goals, but Henderson is adept at both. Committed to Stetson, he scored 14 goals last season, and he’s in line to lead an Oakleaf strike force that’s become one of Northeast Florida’s best during the last three years.
F Bruno Takeda, Sr., Atlantic Coast: The senior striker blasted 21 goals last season, and he’s on course to play at the next level for Air Force. He joins elusive winger Josh Spircoff in an attacking combination that combined for 30 goals in 2016-17 and could surpass that this year.
M Estin Thiele, Sr., Menendez: The undisputed star player for the Falcons did it all last year. He scored 16 goals and set up eight others in his junior year, and he joins another double-digit finisher in Justin Lawshe on a team that could contend for a spot in District 4-3A.
Clayton Freeman Times-Union