No. 7 ranked T-Birds take aim at a national title run in 2017

No. 7 ranked T-Birds take aim at a national title run in 2017

CONCORDIA, Kansas —   Since the final second ticked off the clock in last year's 2-0 victory over Parkland during pool play of the NJCAA DI Men's Soccer Championships, the Cloud County Community College men's soccer team has dreamed of a return trip.

A loss to San Jacinto-South to begin pool play derailed the T-Birds' hopes of a national title last year, following a 2016 season that saw Cloud County ranked as high as No. 5 in the NJCAA polls and post the most program wins (19-1-2 overall) since its 2011 National Championship team went 21-1-3.

Cloud begins this season ranked No. 7 in the country; a mark that head coach James Ross said means little until his team proves it on the pitch, starting with Tuesday's season opener at 7 p.m. on the road against Kansas Wesleyan University.

"I have preached to my team that 'We're not ranked No. 7. That's based off last year's results,'" Ross said. "We haven't played a game this year. That's how I motivate the guys. We have to go out and prove we're one of the best teams in the country."

Cloud County will look to do so with a renovated roster that features four returners: captains Alan Brandao and Rafael Santos, each of whom were named First-Team All-Region VI and All-KJCCC West players as freshmen, as well as Rafael Alkmin (Second-Team All-KJCCC West) and Luiz Garcia.

Ross pointed to Brandao and Santos as vital pieces in leading the new look T-Birds and building team continuity.

"My captains were incredible last year and we have the same thing this year in Rafael Santos and Alan Brandao," Ross said. "Captains are a big part of your success on and off the field."

Cloud will be without four of its top five goal scorers from a season ago — Santos ranked third on the team with six — and without goalkeeper Calum Ellis Jones, who was voted a Second-Team All-American for his work in net in 2016. Ross is confident, however, that the pieces to plug those holes are on campus this season.

Freshmen goalkeeper Charles Albuquerque will begin the year as the starter, backed up by fellow freshman Joao Pignaton, each of whom are described by Ross to be "elite" netminders.

Offensively, Santos figures to be an offensive weapon again this fall for the T-Birds, flanked by freshmen forwards Guilherme Martins, Ignacio Anaya and Ronaldo dos Santos.

Ross hopes Cloud County will also be able to bring some impactful weapons off the bench.

"Every kid we have on the team could start somewhere in the conference," Ross said. "The hard thing for me will be deciding who starts and when and who to sub. We have three starting groups of 11 guys. That's how deep we are."

The T-Birds' depth will inevitably be tested, as well as their mental toughness, as they attempt to defend their KJCCC West and Plains District championships and challenge for a NJCAA DI Men's Soccer National Championship.

"We are going to be back at the national tournament. And once you're there, anything can happen," Ross said. "The target is on our back and the kids know that. I think the best team in our district is Cloud County."