John Tyler boys soccer coach Howard Story admits he's a little surprised at the success his team has had thus far.
The Lions are 11-1-3, unbeaten when playing with 11 men and playing nothing like a team that graduated 10 seniors and returned three starters.
The key? A balanced, well-organized team. In a word — chemistry.
"We don't rely on any one person on the team and I think this year what's really played well is our chemistry," Story said.
John Tyler opens District 31-4A play Friday with a road game against Athens at 7 p.m. Simultaneously, the Lady Lions open their league slate against Athens at John Tyler High School Field.
The Lions finished second to Lindale last year in a race that went to the final game of the season. The Eagles finished with 26 points, holding off JT by two points by forcing a shootout in the finale.
In a change to the league rules, this year games that are not decided in regulation or extra time will go to penalty kicks from the spot instead of a shootout from 35 yards.
"Most purists like the PKs," Story said. "The other was more of a test of skill. I think it makes you suffer a little more. I'm not about suffering so let's shoot the PKs and be done with it."
Of course, most teams will prefer to have three points locked up well beforehand. To do that, John Tyler will hope to get the most out of its midfield, led by Aron Alonso, Jose Valdez and Jose Paz. The Lions are boosted by a balanced offense that doesn't rely on any one player to score goals.
"Our midfield is working well and I'm looking forward to district," Story said. "It's always a test for the kids who will want to prove themselves.
"I think we're going to do well in district. The guys are ready. … I think the guys will be hungry to get back on the field and play hard on Friday."
Story said the Lions won't be overlooking anyone in district play, especially the opener at Athens, a fixture in which JT has historically struggled to score.
Athens, along with Lindale, Whitehouse and JT, reached the playoffs last year and will again be among the favorites to return to the postseason from a district that also includes Chapel Hill and Mabank.
"On any given night you go out, try to be consistent and try to control the game and come away with the victory," Story said. "After last year I think a lot of the guys don't take anything for granted. We're just looking to take it game by game and finish strong."
Like the Lions, the Lady Lions are dealing with the loss of key players, albeit via transfers. Yelsi Rosales and Adrianna Perez, stars from last year's team, are both at Robert E. Lee now.
Nonetheless, JT coach William Aranguren and his players enter league play with confidence.
"I certainly miss Yelsi and Adrianna — at the same time I think the girls that I have have stepped up and covered those positions," Aranguren said. "In the absence of those, others have shown we'll be OK."
The Lady Lions finished fourth in District 31-4A last year and they'll be eyeing an even better performance this year.
The 2013 team was young, but Aranguren thinks this squad is ready to compete with the league's best after finishing the non-district slate at 6-4-5 against quality opponents.
"This time around they know what they've got, they know what they can do," Aranguren said. "They know the teams they've played are real hard teams. Going into district, those teams are on the same level so they know they're going to do pretty well."
In District 31-4A, Aranguren said he thinks Whitehouse is the team to beat, with fast wing play, strong central midfielders and a tight defense.
"Whitehouse is one of those that you don't know who to cover," Aranguren said. "It's a very, very compact team and very strong. That's the puzzle for me."
Thus far the Lady Lions have relied on the creative spark of Esperanza Zavaleta and Kenia Delgado while Jolenne Calleja has become a reliable goal scorer up front. Rebecca Renteria has continued her strong play in goal.
John Tyler hopes to put it all together to continue their development and improve upon last year's 4-5-1 league record.
"They're motivated in a healthy way," Aranguren said. "They're confident in what they do but they know how much they have to work and they're ready to do the work. We're going to keep on preparing."