Ridgeland seniors Evan Courtney, Blakely Epperson, Blake Parden, Casey Daniel, Jared Rhoden, Chris Cronnon, Pascual Diego, and Jason Garcia could be a dark horse for a state playoff berth this season. (Messenger photo/Scott Herpst)

When running down the list of top boys’ soccer teams in Region 7-AAAA, the usual suspects of Dalton, Southeast Whitfield, Northwest Whitfield, and Heritage usually spring to mind.

But if you’re looking for a dark horse this season, look no further than Ridgeland where third-year head coach Tim Sparks has a senior-heavy squad with designs on make a run at the playoffs.

“We have high expectations this year, especially with eight seniors, seven of which are going to start for us,” Sparks explained. “I’ve never really talked about results in the past, but this year I’m really expecting a lot of good results.”

Last year’s team finished 7-9 overall, including a 2-1 overtime win over Heritage, and Sparks is hopeful of a few more big wins this season.

“We really feel confident that we can be in every game,” added Sparks, whose team only graduated only Dylan Simonsen from last year’s squad. “If we play up to our potential, then I expect us to have a chance to really make some noise in the region.”

Eight seniors will lead the way on the pitch in their final season in Black-and-White.

Normally a center midfielder, Evan Courtney may play more at a forward position this season. He led the Panthers with 13 goals and 11 assists as a junior. Midfielder Blakely Epperson will be the team’s main cog in the center this season, and is coming off a nine-goal campaign last year.

Sparks is hoping for big years from forward Blake Parden and Casey Daniel. Parden has tremendous speed and a knack for the goal, while Daniel is versatile enough to play up top or on the back line where he is a tenacious defender.

Jared Rhoden is primarily a defensive player, but showed off his offensive skills last year with four goals and three assists. Chris Cronnon is another strong defender in the middle of the back line, while forward Pascual Diego has shown great improvement and has added muscle from a season of wrestling.

The final senior, Jason Garcia, will be in his first season with the Panthers and will likely see the bulk of his playing time at the forward or midfield positions.

Among the other names to keep an eye on include junior defender Aaron Parden, winger Justin Bolton, and talented freshman midfielder Miguel Velazquez, the brother of former Lady Panther Brenda Velazquez, who signed with Tennessee Temple last year.

Joseph Fincher will be back in goal for the Panthers, and Sparks says Fincher has gotten a big boost from the return of former head coach Tevis Knight, who will be assisting Sparks this season.

“I’m really excited to have Coach Knight back,” Sparks said. “Joseph has really improved a lot from last year just in the last few weeks from working with him.”

Sparks has close to 30 players currently in the program, which may allow for some junior varsity games for the first time in several seasons.

“Starting with that many guys is very encouraging,” he said. “We’ve got a lot freshmen so to be able to get them some extra games is exciting.

“I kind of have an idea of the starting 11 and pretty much the top 13, but we have several other guys that are right there pushing to get into that top 13. We’ve got a lot of numbers, but we don’t have too much depth. However, I’m hoping that as the year progresses, we’ll have some more guys work their way into some more playing time.”