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Bulldog varsity (Photo Courtesy Jennifer Coats – Jennifer Coats Photography)

Rebuilding a sports program from the ground up is a significant undertaking, but it comes with a commensurate reward: Eventually, those wet-behind-the-ears athletes are going to grow up.

The Bulldog soccer team suffered a few key losses to the cap and gown, but having spent the past few seasons relying on everyone to contribute, all of its returning players have significant varsity experience under their belts.

“As far as starting players, we really only lost one or two, and right now, the people who are going to be starting for us Saturday, the majority of them have been playing for two or three years,” head coach Phillip Jowers said this week.

Of those, two – juniors Aaron Natera (keeper) and Ian Robson (defender) – are in their fourth year with the program, having been called up as eighth-graders.

“So we have quite a bit of depth this year,” Jowers said. “But the big thing is, this is the first year we’ll have a true varsity team playing varsity games. Because in the past, the majority of our team was underclassmen; now, the majority is juniors and seniors, so that’s going to be the biggest difference for us.”

Four seniors and nine juniors will assume leadership roles this season for the ‘Dogs, and they comprise the athletes that have progressed with Jowers and assistant coach Daniel Kidd as they worked to usher in a new era of boys’ soccer in Artesia.

“Everybody that’s here has been working in the system we’ve put in place and growing with the program,” Jowers said. “We’ve been playing a certain formation for three years now, and it takes time to learn that stuff. It’s no different than if you suddenly switched to wildcat in football.

“The last couple of seasons, we’ve kind of had it put to us, but we’ve seen a natural progression of going from getting blown out of the water in a lot of games year before last to playing a lot of close games last year. And this is the year I feel like we’re going to be contending strongly.”

The ‘Dogs showed their commitment to that end over the summer, turning out with enthusiasm to voluntary workouts and putting in extra time on their own.

“The boys showed a lot of dedication during the summer,” said Jowers. “They started practicing three or four times a week, and obviously none of that stuff is mandatory, but we still had a solid group coming out, and it shows dedication for kids to get up early in the morning for practice, then do weights and everything.

“So that aspect of it is where it needs to be, now they just need to have the belief and follow through. They can do this as long as they continue to keep that family and team mentality, and we do have a very strong kind of family vibe instilled in the program this year. They’re there to help each other, on and off the field, and we have really strong leadership from our seniors and some of our other upperclassmen this year that helps out quite a bit.”

Jowers aims to use Artesia’s early-season games to continue to evaluate where his players are and how they can continue to improve. If they use their opportunities over the course of the regular season wisely, he says, the Bulldogs should be in position to compete come district.

“We just want to stay focused and not look too far ahead, take it one game at a time and see what we can accomplish in the here and now,” said the coach. “Then we can improve where we need it going forward, but ultimately, our long-term goal this year is to be district champion. We want to beat those three other teams, and we don’t want to just squeak through – we want to make it a punctuation mark of, ‘Hey, we’re actually here now and you’ve got to deal with it.’

“Once we do that, we can move on and look forward to state. If we win district, we don’t have to worry about bids or anything else, so that’s what we’re shooting for. It’s only happened once in all these years, and I think we have a good chance of doing it this year and next, as well.”

The ‘Dogs will kick off their 2017 campaign at noon Saturday against Belen at the Mack Chase Athletic Complex, and Jowers says the team will be focused on the basics as they test how far their preseason work has taken them.

“The biggest thing that’s going to help them be successful Saturday is if they focus on what we’re doing in that game and nobody else – focus on the fundamentals and not try to overanalyze things or overthink things.

“The key is just breaking it down into simple, small things.”

Artesians are encouraged to turn out and support the soccer squad as it ushers in the new season and prepares for two significant road challenges to follow: Class 6A Hobbs and Carlsbad Aug. 22 and 24.

“I’m really excited about the potential these kids have out there, because – I’ve said it before – this is never my team, it’s their team,” said Jowers. “They can go as far as they want to go. We’ll give them the tools to get there, but it’s completely up to them whether they want it bad enough, and I think this group of kids right now wants it pretty badly.”

Bulldog JV (Photo Courtesy Jennifer Coats – Jennifer Coats Photography)