TEAMS TO WATCH
1. Boyd-Buchanan: The Buccaneers return 10 starters from a District 5-A/AA championship team.
2. Calhoun: The Yellow Jackets are off to a 4-0-1 start after falling in the Georgia Class AA state final last year.
3. Dalton: The Catamounts are on a 26-game winning streak that includes the 2013 Georgia AAAA state championship.
4. Notre Dame: The Irish return a solid core from a team that advanced to the A/AA state quarterfinals.
5. Ooltewah: The Owls return a hungry senior class that has advanced to two sectionals in their careers.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Darwin Lom, Calhoun: A season after finishing with 27 goals and 10 assists, the junior forward has eight goals as the defending Class AA state runners-up have started 4-0-1.
2. Eder Mora, Dalton: The junior midfielder was a first-team Best of Preps member last season and has helped the Catamounts to a 4-0 start.
3. Jose Orellana, East Hamilton: The junior midfielder was the District 6-A/AA player of the year last season and is the top offensive player returning for the Hurricanes.
4. Trey Taylor, Ooltewah: Taylor was the District 5-AAA player of the year with 14 goals despite missing half of the season with an injury.
5. Tad Whitaker, East Ridge: Whitaker was a Class A/AA all-state player last season, finishing with 23 goals and 19 assists.
Since they've started gaining relevance as a program, the East Ridge soccer Pioneers have had one primary goal: to advance to the state tournament. Last season they came closer than ever, losing in double-overtime to Notre Dame in a Class A/AA sectional match.
They have added new players to a solid set of returners, and the objective looms even bigger.
The Pioneers earned their second sectional berth last season and pushed Notre Dame into the golden-goal period before falling on a Baggio Card score in the 102nd minute. It left a bitter taste for the upstart program, but that seems to have turned to greater determination.
Tad Whitaker was the team's offensive leader last season, totaling 23 goals and 19 assists on his way to all-state honors. He described the loss as "the worst thing that's ever happened to me."
"Our goal was to get to state. We said that at the beginning of the year," Whitaker said. "This year we just have to come back and take the next step to get there. It's going to take hard practices and a lot of communication, but if we work together and do what we're supposed to do, we're going to get there."
East Ridge coach Jeremy McIntyre has some work to do. He lost his entire midfield from last season and his goalkeeper but has welcomed the additions of basketball players Eddie Hitchcock, Kolbe King, Dee Moore and Keion Jones. King has actually been a starter on the soccer team throughout his career, while Hitchcock will add speed to the forward position. Moore and Jones are learning to play goalkeeper.
"They hadn't even practiced yet and came out to a scrimmage and were phenomenal," Whitaker said. "They've been coming to practice every day, doing every drill Coach asks and watching video on how to get better. They've shown a great work ethic."
McIntyre said the 2013 sectional loss has really driven the team.
"We have a big old group that have been here a while, and we have some experience, so I hope we learn fast and can get on a roll," McIntyre said. "We have a whole season to learn and get better each day, but if we can fill in those holes, we can have a pretty decent team.
"We might start out a little shaky, but as long as we learn and get better, better and better, we can peak at the right time. These guys aren't going to be happy unless they're in Murfreesboro."
Whitaker said he's grown and matured as a player and that being a team player and "having more fun" are his individual goals for the season.
"I just want to get the team to where we can win as many games as we can," he said. "I guess I want to be the one who leads the team to state."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.