New Gulf Coast coach aims to develop squad

Published 11:32 am Monday, August 22, 2022

PERKINSTON — There are two things new Mississippi Gulf Coast women’s soccer coach Aaron Avila has tried to accomplish as his team approaches its season opener on Tuesday.


Find the iron in his players and grow their confidence and skills.

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A challenging preseason schedule has helped the former, and the tough opponents have provided opportunities to improve the latter.


“We didn’t have an easy preseason schedule so I can really get to know them as competitors,” Avila said. “That’s been good to learn who has the iron in them and who doesn’t. Those players with the iron are the ones who are going to help build the program. We want to learn that early in the season rather than in the middle.”


Gulf Coast opens the season Tuesday with a short road trip to Poplarville to play a non-conference game with archrival Pearl River. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. The Bulldogs open their home schedule with an MACCC contest against Hinds on Sept. 16. Home games will be streamed at


Avila’s squad played preseason games against NAIA Mobile, NCAA Division II Spring Hill and NCAA Division I Southern Miss. It’s been a time for him and new assistant coach Carly Mauldin to get to know his players since only three returned from last year’s squad, and they didn’t recruit most of the large freshman class.


The three returners he’ll be leaning on include two of his central defenders, Kate Bertolino (So., Ocean Springs/Vancleave) and Bayleigh Jones (So., Hurley/East Central). Jones didn’t play a ton of minutes last year, but she’s shown growth each game.


“Kate has been a very nice surprise because she’s probably been one of our best players this preseason,” Avila said. “She’s been very competitive and she’s gaining more confidence each game. That’s nice to see.”


The other sophomore is forward Alyssa Palisi, a two-time All-Region 23 selection. She had 11 goals and five assists as a freshman and another four of each last year, when she suffered another knee injury and missed the latter stages of the season.


“She’s been working hard rehabbing all spring and all summer,” Avila said. “She finally got to play in the second preseason game. She played a few minutes, then played a pretty good bit of minutes against USM. She looked like she was playing well, and we’re excited to get her back moving forward.”


There are 16 freshmen on the roster, and they’ve been tested in the early going. They are backed by keeper A’Leigh Coleman (Fr., Ocean Springs/Ocean Springs).


“She seems to be a great teammate, a very good communicator,” Avila said. “She pushes herself and her teammates. She’s willing to learn and do whatever it takes to be successful.”


Ann Elise Hester (Fr., Hattiesburg/Presbyterian Christian), Kylie McNair (Fr., Sumrall/Sumrall), Sierra Baxter (Fr., Lucedale/George County) and Tiffany Beasley (Fr., Ocean Springs/Ocean Springs) are other defenders working with Bertolino and Jones. Avila said Beasley has the talent to develop into one of the best defenders in the league.


Valentina Marin (Fr., Bogota, Colombia/Colegio Madre Matilde) and Lainey Cunningham (Fr., Wiggins/Stone) have different styles in midfield as might be expected given just the distance they’ve traveled to play here. Cunningham helped lead Stone to its first girls soccer state championship last year just up the road, while Marin is from Colombia. While learning the college game, they’ve both put in the hard work to adjust to the speed of the college game.


“They’ve both battled through all that,” Avila said. “They’re beginning to build that true confidence they need. If they can stay healthy and progress, they’ll have a good year.”


Avery Saucier (Fr., Bay St. Louis/Bay) will also play in midfield. Out wide up top, The Bulldogs will use Mariana Gonzalez (Fr., Cartago, Costa Rica/Colegio Calasanz ), Hannah Lapniewski (Fr., Waveland/Bay) and Macie Duncan (Fr., Mobile Ala./Baker). Gonzalez brings a technical game and excellent fitness, while Duncan will flash speed.


Morgan Pickering (Fr., Wiggins/Stone), another one of the state champion Tomcats, and Skyler Vance (Fr., Grenada/Kirk Academy) will join Palisi as strikers. Pickering is the tallest player on the team and brings good work rate and tools.


“When she puts the physical side of the game, what she has to offer, with the tactical and technical side,” Avila said, “she’ll be a player who will have a lot of success in this league.”


The Bulldogs have already benefited from the new artificial turf at Bary Thrash Field. It even saved one bus trip already. They were supposed to travel to play at Mobile, but the Rams’ field was unplayable. Gulf Coast was eager to host and got the game in with no problem, leaving the Mobile coach being very complimentary.


“It’s been nice with all the rain we’ve had this preseason,” Avila said. “All we’ve had to worry about is the lightning. I know one day, it was pouring down rain, and we just kept training because there was no lightning. The girls liked it because it was cooler.”


He’s gone and watched Jones, Pearl River and East Central this season as he starts learning the MACCC. He knows the reputation of Holmes and Northwest Mississippi from up north. The conference has eliminated divisions in soccer this year, so the schedule is a straight single round-robin with the other 10 teams.


The top seven teams will qualify for the playoffs, with the regular-season champ earning the MACCC crown and a bye into the semifinal. The other six teams will match up in the quarterfinals, with the Gulf South District Tournament being hosted by the men’s regular-season champ.


“I think we can surprise people as long as we stay healthy and continue to grow,” Avila said. “We won’t be a pushover for anybody.”


For more information on MGCCC’s 11 intercollegiate athletic teams, follow @MGCCCBulldogs on Twitter and MGCCCBulldogs on Facebook, and go to