No. 5 Pearl River’s expectations just as high in 2022
Published 1:17 pm Thursday, August 25, 2022
POPLARVILLE, Miss. — The Pearl River men’s soccer team broke through for its first NJCAA Tournament appearance in program history a season ago and finished with a 12-1-4 record. Just a few days before kickoff of the 2022 season, head coach Drew Gallant’s expectations are just as high for the new campaign.
“Obviously, we always shoot to do better than we did the season before,” Gallant said. “We know that is a huge mountain to climb for us this year. It’s one of the best seasons we’ve ever had here. It was our first trip to the National Tournament which is really hard to follow up. That’s a large goal that we have set for ourselves. We have a lot of players who came back with that goal in mind. We hope that we can reach it again, but we know how big of an accomplishment that was last season.”
Pearl River will have a very experienced team in 2022, bringing back 13 players from last season’s tournament team. Five of those players are back for a third season.
“It definitely helps having all of the older players,” Gallant said. “They can help with the coaching points on the field. That’s beneficial because we’re different than the majority of sports where there are no stoppages during play to talk. Hopefully those guys will be able to help when we get into a real game.”
On the wings, Pearl River will be able to play a pair of third-year players in Mo Diallo (Gulfport) and Alex Emery (Gulfport; West Harrison). Diallo started all 17 games in 2021, scoring eight goals and assisting on five. Emery, who split time between forward and outside back last season, will mostly play forward in 2022. He picked up four goals and seven assists last season.
“Mo and Alex were both a big part of everything that we were doing in the attack last season and they’re both back with the team,” Gallant said. “Alex played outside back and on the wing and was very productive coming off the bench. Hopefully, he will be able to bring that productive being in the lineup every day.”
“Jackson has been really good this preseason on the wing, up front and even in the midfield,” Gallant said. “He’s an extremely intelligent person. He reads the game very well. He pays attention to everything and works harder than everyone. He’s been another surprise this preseason that will get some minutes.”
At the center forward position, last season’s leading scorer Harper Baggett (Ocean Springs) returns to the team. He was named First Team All-MACCC in 2021 after scoring 10 goals and assisting on five. He’s joined by reigning Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year Luke Hopkins (Clinton). The pair should split time at the position depending on schemes.
“We brought in Luke who is going to push for that center forward role with Harper. We have depth at that position that we didn’t have last year,” Gallant said. “Harper and Luke look like the same kid, but athletically they aren’t. They bring different playing styles. Luke is more of a technical, quick player even though he’s 6-foot-3. Harper is more of a power, traditional, back to goal center forward. The benefit of having them both is being able to change things up depending on the team that you’re playing.”
The midfield looks to be one of PRCC’s best position groups. The Wildcats return third-year attacking midfielder Andre Nicholson (Kingston, Jamaica.; Clarendon College) to lead the charge. Last season, Nicholson was named an All-American and the Scholar Athlete of the Year by United Soccer Coaches after scoring five goals and assisting on four.
“Andre is good player and a great person off the field. He’s everything you want. I’d like for him to be more productive this year like he was as a freshman. He needs to score the easy goals he has chances on. I know he scores the unbelievable, world class goals, but we need the simple ones. It’s very nice having that type of player back in the midfield.”
Pairing with Nicholson will be fellow international and former FC Copenhagen youth player Christopher Dommer(Rungsted, Denmark.).
“Chris is so good. I think that he has a chance to be incredible for us,” Gallant said. “He’s a very selfless player, but he gets selfish at the right times. He’s very effective. When he drives at players, he does it to create space and make things happen. He also makes things happen for other players. He’s a huge addition to the team.”
Jason Irias (D’Iberville) also looks to feature in an attacking midfield position when called upon. He scored three goals and assisted on another last season.
“We plan on using Jason more in the middle of the field,” Gallant said. “He did a really good job this summer with his summer league team in the midfield. We feel like he’s a more natural attacking midfielder even though we have a lot of depth there.”
Julio Gruba (Curitiba, Brazil.) also returns in his defensive midfield role. He scored one goal and assisted on another last season.
“We give Julio free reign to go where he thinks he needs to go. Julio serves in more of a defensive role just because of the way that we play. There will be times where Julio will be able to get forward more. When he gets forward, he creates chances to score.”
Brennon Maulden (Wiggins; Stone County) will feature behind Gruba but may also see time at outside back.
“Brennon is learning a lot from Julio,” Gallant said. “Obviously, he has our best player in front of him. We can also use Brennon as an outside back with our style of play. We need to do a better job of utilizing Brennon in those outside back positions.”
At season’s end in 2021, Pearl River boasted the top defensive team in the NJCAA DII ranks, finishing the year with a remarkable 0.43 goals-against average and just seven goals allowed.
“Brandon being back gives him an opportunity to step into a leadership role on the backline. He’s really taken that opportunity and ran with it,” Gallant said. “Durron has solidified himself as a starter at center back. With Gavin Taylor coming in last year, it took minutes away from him, but he never complained about it. He’s going to be able to help whichever freshman wins the battle for the other center back position.
Freshmen Jason Garcia (Laurel; Northeast Jones) and Aden Smith (Biloxi) are currently in a battle for the left center back position.
“There’s a really good battle between those two at that position,” Gallant said. “Ethan looked really good there during training yesterday, then we put Peyton there and he did as well.”
DeCamp has excelled in camp for the Wildcats.
“Fisher has been a great surprise for us,” Gallant said. “He’s a good teammate and he works hard. He’s always asking for coaching. He’s an outside back but could be a winger if we needed him to be. He’s getting smarter with his play. I think he sees his role. I have a lot of hope for Fisher.”
Pearl River has the privilege of deploying arguably the best goalkeeper in the country in NJCAA Third-Team All-American Maddux Francis (Poplarville). Francis led the NJCAA in goals-against average (0.44) last season and turned away 68 shots against seven goals allowed.
“We do have high expectations for him,” Gallant said. “We did lose both center backs, so Maddux knows where we are at. He knows we may give up more goals because we went more attacking with our signing class this year. We know that Maddux is going to be a leader on the field. He’s one of our team captains this season.”
Donovan Minor (Poplarville) will be Francis’ backup this season.
The Wildcats open the 2022 campaign ranked as the No. 5 team in NJCAA DII. The ranking is the highest among MACCC schools.
The Wildcats kickoff their season Friday with a matchup on the road against Itawamba. The game is set to get underway at 4 p.m. and will be livestreamed at LetsGoICCTV.com. Pearl River comes home for the first time Sept. 13 for a 7 p.m. kickoff against Holmes.
Pearl River athletics will be cashless for ticketing starting in 2022-23. Purchase single-match or season tickets ahead of time at PRCCAthletics.com/Tickets.
The Wildcats will once again livestream all matches for free at PRCCMedia.com. Fans who have Roku, Amazon Fire or Apple TV devices can also watch the Wildcat broadcasts by downloading the “Pearl River CC” channel from their app stores.