Under the leadership of new coach Mark McKeee, Fulton girls soccer has a clean slate, with opportunities for starting spots still available and chances for underclassmen to shine.
"I believe there are a few starters, but with me, everybody started out on a blank start," McKee said. "We have been fighting for or competing for spots since Day 1. So I was told there are a few returning starters, but we are a very young club with only two seniors."
While the team may be young and inexperienced, 61-year-old coach McKee brings lots of soccer experience. McKee has refereed men's/women's college soccer (NCAA Division II-III, NAIA), Missouri Class 1-4 boys/girls high school soccer (including state championships) from 1995-2020, and he's also coached recreational league teams and played soccer his entire life.
"I loved officiating," McKee said. "I got out of officiating after I injured my back in a car wreck. It kind of forced me to retire. It was great. I watched so much good soccer, college coaches. I ref'd state championship games and state-caliber teams."
Watching those teams, McKee felt he got a grasp of the strategy of those top-notch high school soccer teams.
"I had a great school, so to speak of," McKee said. "To watch a lot of great teachers, so to speak, on the game of soccer. It was a great experience."
Seeing different tactics and philosophies high school coaches apply to their teams, McKee uses his observation and soccer experience to teach his Fulton team various schemes and adjustments based on the opponent.
"We're working on different strategies all the time," McKee said. "So we're not just going to be focused on one. We're very versatile, and we will play our opponent accordingly."
Fulton's team chemistry plays a role in adapting to the different tactics and playing styles McKee teaches his players.
"I have a good core group of players that have stood out to be leaders," McKee said. "...The team plays together. Very good chemistry, and I'm very proud of the culture they have developed so far."
With that excellent chemistry, McKee has high expectations for the Hornets.
"Let's just say I have pretty high hopes for this team," McKee said. "I believe that with this young squad that my expectations are pretty high. I have a real good feel for the group of soccer players that I have."
It'll take hard work on the pitch and in practice for the teams to meet McKee's high expectations, as Fulton (3-19) was just one of two teams who finished below .500 in the six-team North Central Missouri Conference last season.
Highway 54 rival Mexico (5-20) finished below .500 in the 2021-22 season, too.
Conversely, Hannibal (21-5) had the best overall record in the NCMC last season.
The Lady Pirates' 21 wins last year was their highest of the seasons MSHSAA's website lists (dates back to 2005). However, Hannibal has a history of success, finishing above .500 over the past nine seasons while winning a district title in 2014.
McKee may not know how the NCMC teams played last season, but he does understand Hannibal will be a challenging opponent, as he witnessed in his time as an official.
"(Hannibal coach Eric Hill) has been around a long time," McKee said. "I've ref'd against him; he's a good coach. He's gonna bring it, and we're gonna be ready for him. I know he had a good team last year."
Regardless of how McKee's squad performs or how others do, the Hornets' coach stresses his players have fun and compete more than anything else.
"The girls are trying to learn this fun game of soccer and play right," McKee said. "I'm teaching sportsmanship, how to have fun, and how to compete. That's a big thing is competing this year. We're gonna compete for a position. You're gonna compete for starting time, and you're gonna compete in the games. That's kind of the way it is."