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Ole Miss soccer can bounce back from a disappointing 2016

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New faces, sure, but veterans at key spots shore up important worry areas.

Soccer: 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup-Costa Rica at USA Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss soccer had an admittedly disappointing season in 2016. Just one year removed from a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAAs, the Rebels slumped to a 9-11 record and were ousted by Tennessee in the first round of the SEC tournament. This season, they are picked to finish ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll. But with 12 newcomers joining 14 returners this season, they’ll look to regroup and again become a force to be reckoned with in the SEC West. Matt Mott’s squad will kick off their season Friday night in Oxford against defending SWAC champions Alabama State.

Players To Watch

CeCe Kizer, MF

Kizer, a junior attacking midfielder, was instrumental in the Rebels’ run to the Sweet 16 two years ago. As a freshman, she started all 23 games and notched 14 goals and an assist, earning SEC Freshman of the Year, Top Drawer Soccer Freshman All-America honors, and an invite to training camp with the U.S. U-20 national team. Last season, however, she was dealing with a nagging foot injury and managed just five goals, but she did lead the team with six assists. Kizer returning to her top form will go a long way toward improving an offense that finished 12th in the SEC in goals per game.

Liza Harbin, D

Harbin, a senior defender, has started 49 games over her three years with the Rebels, including 20 in each of the last two seasons. She’ll be the anchor of a defense that needs to improve rapidly if they want to climb up the standings in the SEC. They finished tied for last in the SEC in goals allowed and 12th in goals against average. Harbin, along with Kizer and goalkeeper Marnie Merritt, was named to the SEC preseason watch list.

Alley Houghton, F

A sophomore, Houghton has the unenviable task of replacing Addie Forbus at forward. Forbus finished her career third in Ole Miss history in games played and sixth in both goals and assists. But if anyone is up to the task, it’s Houghton. An Oxford native, she broke Forbus’ Mississippi high school scoring records during her six years on the Lafayette High squad and was the state player of the year and an All-American her senior year. Last year for the Rebels, she started six of their last seven games and scored twice, including a game-winner in double overtime at Kentucky.

She figures to see a lot more action this year, and she’ll be counted on to put the ball in the back of the net.

Schedule

The non-conference slate should be a cakewalk for the Rebels. They only play one Power 5 team out of conference, and that is at home against Michigan on August 25. Five of their non-conference games are at home, one is on a neutral site (vs. Tulsa in Memphis), and two are on the road (Memphis and Stetson).

The SEC schedule, however, is just as tough as it usually is. The Rebels kick off their SEC slate at preseason No. 7 Florida. They also have a road game against No. 17 Arkansas. There is good news, however. Two of their toughest matches are at home. Ole Miss will face No. 4 South Carolina and No. 10 Auburn from the friendly confines of the Ole Miss Soccer Stadium. They also do not have to play two ranked teams in the same weekend, and six games are against teams that finished .500 or worse in conference play last season.

The Rebels’ games at Florida, at Arkansas, and at Mississippi State will be televised nationally on SEC Network.

Predictions?

The potential is there for the Rebels to make a jump forward this season. The schedule is as easy as it gets for an SEC team, and there is talent up front and at goalkeeper. The key will be bridging the two together, establishing a presence on defense and in the midfield. This team is young (16 of 26 players are underclassmen), but if the veterans are able to lead this team and rediscover their 2015 form, they’ll be a contender again.