The challenge for the Pinewood Prep boysí soccer team is as formidable as it has been in some time, but the goal remains the same.

The Panthers are out to claim another SCISA championship. If they succeed, it will be their seventh straight.

However, the team lost six starters from last yearís championship team and all of them had been with the program for the past six seasons. That and an 0-4 performance during the Carolina Soccer Classic preseason tournament has some speculating the Panthersí reign in SCISA Class AAA is over.

Pinewood coach Jason Birchwood is not one of them.

ìI expect us to do well,î Birchwood said. ìA lot of people donít expect us to go far, but I expect us to be in the final again. Our players have seen their shortcomings from that preseason tournament and are focused on improving. As the season goes along, I think we will perform well. It will be a challenge for us, but we are very talented this year. We are just young.î

Since the tournament, the Panthers have three consecutive shutouts as they earned wins over Wilson Hall, Hilton Head Prep and Hilton Head Christian.

The Panthers only have two seniors this season and Birchwood will be looking for Blaise Rashtchian and Josh Glenn to provide leadership in the midfield. But according to the coach, this season rides on how the teamís juniors perform.

ìOur junior class is pretty good, but it will be a test for them to see if they can be leaders,î he said. ìEveryone will be gunning for us so we need them to do those things our seniors did last season. Early on, we are focusing on mental strength and facing adversity.î

The teamís captains are both players returning on the defensive side of the pitch. As sophomores, goalkeeper Robert Beebe and defender Brandon Phinney were very instrumental in last yearís title run.

However, that doesnít mean the Panthers will be a defensive-oriented team.

ìWe are an offensive team,î Birchwood said. ìWe donít sit back and look for a break.  We are going to go right at whoever we face.î

Sophomore forward Thomas Ferro is one of the players the coach is expecting to produce goals for the team. He is also looking for midfielders such as junior Taylor Katsanis to provide some firepower.

Other midfielders include Jake Walls, Michael Sauter, Omar Qnzah, Josh Glenn, Max Jaskwhich and Jarrett Londergan. Helping Ferro out up front are Mariano Avila-Gray, Justin White and Garrett Shields.

Ryan Moore is the teamís second keeper. Assisting Phinney in the back are Dillion Thies, Ian Overmier, Peter Ruby and Steven Aldinger.

Pinewood assistant/co coach Collin Phillips is also back. He and Birchwood are hoping games against non-SCISA opponents, particularly those coming up during Aprilís Palmetto Cup, will provide the experience their team needs to make another run at a state championship.

Contact Roger Lee @ 873-9424 ext. 213 or rlee@journalscene.com.