OHS Men’s Soccer Makes 2022 Debut


By Harrison Tarr

For the Observer

Soccer season is officially underway for the Opelika Bulldogs and the opportunity is now laid before head coach Derek Hovell’s squad to leave a lasting impact on ASHAA soccer at the 6A level before making the jump to the next classification in 2023.

The Dawgs opened their 2022 campaign last week with a 2-1 loss against non-area opponent Stanhope Elmore; the head coach of the red and black expressed little concern, claiming that the defeat was merely part of the process.

“We had our opportunities,” Hovell said. “But it was one of those first game things where we just weren’t finishing the ball well. We actually had one of our center backs take a cleat to the knee so what we thought was our starting lineup quickly got changed.”

Between injuries sustained by starters in the early going of the contest and the reality of in-game adjustments for a season opener, Hovell was encouraged by his team’s display.

“We had a few new guys have to pop in to the field that I don’t know if were quite ready to get in that soon,” Hovell said. “But we held our own until the second half and made some mistakes that allowed some goals.”

Learning their identity lies at the forefront of the Dawgs’ to-do list, given that the squad possesses large amounts of youth.

“We’re a little younger team,” Hovell said. “When I say younger, several of the juniors are new to the varsity program but we do have some juniors that played a lot of games last year.”

According to the head coach, a sense of identity will come through the team’s pre-area schedule.

“None of the teams that we have scheduled are cupcakes,” Hovell said. “They’re all talented teams, they all have talented programs historically. It was meant that way for a reason. We wanted to start out with teams that will get us right.”

Hovell will look to a trio of returning standouts to lead their squad into the waters of area play, beginning with senior Said Rujana.

“Said Rujana, he’s going to be a guy to keep an eye on,” Hovell said. “Not only is he our playmaker, he can score some goals.”

Rujana will be complimented on the offensive end of the field by the returning George Meyers.

“Leading goal scorer — George Meyers  — he’s back,” Hovell said. “So playing up top, he’s going to be a pretty good force to reckon with.”

Rounding out the veteran trio is returning all-star Ethan Neman.

“Our guy who made the all-star game, Ethan Neman, is a center back for us,” Hovell said. “I wouldn’t doubt that he plays a few more positions throughout the year. He’s just a really dynamic player.”

Fortunately for Hovell, the rising talent is more than enough to keep the coach excited for the present — and future — of Opelika Soccer.

“There are so many guys I can keep naming,” Hovell said. “Lots of kids who have played together a long time and are eager to get going.”

The leader of the red and black believes that his roster is poised to turn heads in its current classification; in the same token, he wants them to remember the task at hand.

“We’re just going to have to step up,” Hovell said. “We can’t make or break our season just because we’re getting moved up. We have the players. It’s just: can we step up to the challenge?”

Regardless of the imminent reclassification or immediate results of the season, Hovell is excited to have members of the Opelika community in the stands and along for the ride.

“The fans are what help the players play,” Hovell said. “The fan support and having a crowd at the games obviously energizes the players. They get enough of me, they need those other voices out there.”

According to Hovell, continued support from the community has been a privilege for him and has served to the soccer program’s benefit.

“I’m just thankful to be here at Opelika,” Hovell said. “All these years that I’ve been here, soccer is growing.”

Opelika returns to action on Thursday, Feb. 17 when the Dawgs travel to Alexander City to take on the Wildcats of Benjamin Russell high school in their final match before region play. Kickoff between the Dawgs and the Cats is set for 7 p.m. CST.


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