Expectations haven’t changed for Pearl River

Published 7:00 am Sunday, March 28, 2021

POPLARVILLE, Miss. — Some things will never change under Drew Gallant’s watch as the Pearl River men’s soccer coach. Styles will change, uniforms will evolve, players will come and go, but one thing that has been a pillar of Gallant’s tenure is the pursuit of greatness. In 2017, the Wildcats won the MACJC Championship. Each of the last two years, PRCC has clinched the South Division title. This year, Gallant said his team has its attention set on bringing another trophy back to Poplarville.

“Our expectations are where they always are, to win the conference and qualify for the national tournament,” he said. 

Gallant anticipates this year’s team to be a high-pressing squad with plenty of creativity throughout the lineup.

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“In the past we have tried to press but this year we really have the opportunity to press teams, be versatile in our formations,” he said. “We have a lot of talented and creative players in front half of the field who will have a lot of freedom in how they play. 

“While they have freedom, they’ll be encouraged to possess the ball, allowing them to manipulate the play as they see fit.”

Gallant said his Wildcats have been extremely organized in scrimmages and he’s been impressed with their performances. 

“I think defensively we’re where we expect to be,” he said. “We’re probably the best pressing team we’ve had.

“The mentality and work ethic across the board has been great.”

Gallant envisions a versatile attack with a number of creative players who can put the ball in the back of the net.

Two returners will pace the group in Tres Ray (Poplarville) and Miguel Hernandez (Gulfport). Hernandez netted six goals with three assists as a freshman while Ray chipped in four more goals.

“Tres does a tremendous job of creating space for himself and reading the moment of the other forward he’s with,” Gallant said. “When he limits himself to three touches or less he is so dangerous and can make goals happen. Defensively, I don’t know if you’ll find somebody with a higher work rate.”

Hernandez had success playing on the wing and is a relentless attacker.

“Miguel is a very dynamic player who is difficult to defend,” Gallant said. “He has a high motor and has built that into his pressing.”

The two sophomores will be joined by talented newcomers in Mohamed Diallo (Gulfport) and Southwest transfer Diego Rangel (D’Iberville).

“Mo is a handful for defenders because he’s a big player, but he still has enough athleticism to separate himself and get in on goal,” Gallant said. “Diego is really good on the ball. His movement on the ball to create space is spot on.”

One more attacker who will be looked to by Gallant to really give the Wildcats a shot in the arm is Jamaican Andre Nicholson (Kingston, Jamaica; Clarendon College).

“Andre probably has the best touch on the team and he’s the quickest,” Gallant said. “He’s very good at breaking pressure on his own and he’s a goal scorer.”

The midfield will look completely different in 2021 with several newcomers and internationals joining one returner.

Bradley Stines (Poplarville) was named a team captain along with newcomer Jamie Chamberlain (London, England; Dover Athletic Academy) and will help set the tone in the midfield.

“Bradley works hard, does a very good job of keeping the ball, breaking up play and is even good for a goal or two,” Gallant said.

Retsin Kabambala (Mobile, Ala.; Murphy) has been a bright spot in preseason camp for the Wildcats.

“Retsin is an extremely athletic player to have in the midfield, probably more so than anyone he’ll come up against,” Gallant said. “He has a unique drive and work ethic and can be found non-stop, all day, seven days a week.

“To go along with his work ethic and athleticism, he’s very technical and is starting to develop as a tactical player.”

Fellow international Ryley Smith (Manchester, England; Castlebrook) has shown a special talent as an attacking midfielder for PRCC.

“Ryley is a very good ball striker with tremendous vision. He will involve other players in the attack but when the team loses the ball he’s usually the first to win it back,” Gallant said. “He’s very good at finding space and knows how to take the opponent’s space away at the same time.” 

The Wildcats have a number of options across the back line, with the combination of centerbacks and wingbacks. 

At the middle of the line will be converted midfielder Max Matsenbaugh (Pass Christian; St. Stanislaus), Chamberlain and Brandon Elkins (Bay St. Louis; St. Stanislaus).

One thing that jumped out about Chamberlain when he first arrived was his natural leadership.

“He’s one of the best I’ve had,” Gallant said. “He knows when to pick the boys up, when they need that extra positivity. He’s a big guy, good in the air, defends well, quicker than he looks. He has all the traditional characteristics you look for in a centerback, but in addition to that he has adapted to a more modern style of play.”

Gallant said Matsenbaugh brings a midfielder’s ability to the backline for a perfect blend of abilities.

“He’s composed on the ball and gives us an option to keep the ball at the back and it’s always nice to have a left footed player on that side who is comfortable,” Gallant said. “He’s always been an attack-minded player so he looks down the field and sees the options before they develop.”

Gallant loves the vision Elkins possesses in the back.

“He does a very good job of giving us shape at the back,” he said. “He reads the game better than anyone. He anticipates the opposing team’s movements and is very composed. 

“He handles pressure very well.”

Two more defenders who will get plenty of game reps at the middle of the back line are 6-foot-4 freshman Alex Emery (Gulfport; West Harrison) and a second SMCC transfer in Victor Gomez. 

“Alex is a big centerback who defends well. He has done a good job of transitioning from midfield in high school to centerback.  He brings more technical ability than most defenders have. He’s improved his 1-v-1 defending,” Gallant said. “Victor is a more creative centerback. He will add a lot of depth and will challenge for starter’s minutes.”

Flanking the centerbacks will be a mixture of freshmen Durron Myers (Gulfport) and Sam Lambert (Carriere; Pearl River Central) and Dustin Cuevas (Picayune; Hancock). 

Gallant likes Myers toolkit as a potential wingback.

“He’s a good, athletic player who will get valuable minutes,” Gallant said. “He’s very dangerous in the air and a good ball striker. I think our system will suit him.”

Cuevas has been an impressive addition to the lineup for PRCC, Gallant said. 

“Dustin is a wonderful player to coach,” Gallant said. “He absorbs everything you give him. He gives you a goal scoring opportunity from outside. He’s definitely a team player. He works non-stop. 

“He’ll make some goals happen for us.”

If there’s been one player Gallant has raved about the most this preseason it’s been Lambert. The local product has shown ability beyond his age, Gallant said.

“Sam is very talented player and a very smart player. He’s probably the most diverse player we have,” Gallant said. “He can score, defend, reads transitions well. He can be utilized anywhere on the field.”

Back to hold down the goalkeeping will be sophomore John Bowman (Bay St. Louis; Bay). The veteran was one of the top keepers in the country a year ago, allowing only seven goals all year while making 65 saves. His .903 save percentage was third in the NJCAA and his 0.53 goals against average was good enough for seventh. In addition to being MACJC and NJCAA Player of the Week once, Bowman was named to the All-MACJC squad.

“He was one of the best in the country,” Gallant said. “He had been a little slow coming back in the fall and hadn’t really gotten back to where he was until recently. I’d say within the last couple of weeks we’re seeing the John we’re accustomed to seeing — making saves people don’t think will happen.”

Bowman’s backup will be Sebastion Fausett (Kiln; Hancock).

“He has improved tremendously with his saves and technique,” Gallant said. “Working with Coach Carl (Blundell) has been a huge help with his technical side of the job.” 

The Wildcats host an exhibition match Monday against Hinds and will open the season Friday, April 2 at Hinds. PRCC then travels to East Central on Tuesday, April 6 before making its home debut Friday, April 9 against Itawamba.

All home matches will be livestreamed for free at PRCCMedia.com.

All of the Mississippi Association of Community Colleges Conference is making a move this season. The MACCC’s schools have previously played in Division I, despite using traditional Division II roster constraints. This year, the National Junior College Athletic Association has created a Division II, which will include all of the MACCC. With the move means a new opportunity and road to a potential national championship for the Mississippi programs. Should one of the MACCC’s schools make the final 12, the national tournament will be hosted at the Stryker Complex in Wichita, Kansas, June 5-10. The field will initially be broken into four three-team pools and will go from there.

“A men’s team has never even qualified for national tournament from Mississippi,” Gallant said. “Now there’s potentially a path for a Mississippi school to play for a national championship.”

The new Division II classification is comprised of 14 regions from across the country.