Once again, the Aurora Houn' Dawgs' soccer season ended in Monett last year, as coach Curtis Bishop's team fell to the hosts by a score of 4-2. But last season's finale felt different for Aurora.

After defeating Logan-Rogersville 3-1 to overturn an earlier loss to the Wildcats, Bishop's team gave it all against the Cubs in the district championship game. And the coach believes that if one or two moments of the game played out differently, his team could have lifted the trophy.

"A couple of unfortunate plays were the difference in a game we had opportunities to win," said Bishop. "We hope to take that experience into this year and have a different outcome."

But hoping won't make it so, as the coach knows. So, some changes were in order for the team, starting with its strength of schedule.

In order to get his team "battle-tested," the Houn' Dawgs will face some bigger schools and tougher teams more often in the season. Joplin, Parkview, West Plains, Monett, Springfield Catholic and Bolivar are all on the schedule, but Bishop also recognizes that his team's conference schedule will be good for them as well.

"Our biggest games are right in our conference, with the always stated-ranked Springfield Catholic, Monett and Logan-Rogersville, so it will be a challenge," said Bishop, whose team went 1-5 against Big 8 East opponents in its first year of conference play.

In addition to the challenge of a tougher schedule, the Dawgs will also have to reckon with the losses of half a dozen key starters from last year. Spencer Briggs, Jordani Perez, Jairo Hedrick, Pablo Reyes, Ryan Cline and Diego Garcia-Ortega will be missing, due to graduation or injury, leaving All-District and All-Conference shaped holes all over the field for Aurora.

But Bishop isn't focused on the losses, instead seeing the opportunity for the rest of the team to step up.

"Even with the losses we have this year. . . we have a tremendous group of players coming back that have a ton of varsity experience. We have the ability to possess the ball, pass the ball, shoot the ball and defend as well as any group I have coached," he said of the offense. "The group plays well together and plays with the type of unselfishness to keep everyone involved. Great group of leaders on and off the field."

Among those leaders for the Houn' Dawgs this year are seniors Julius Jager, Samuel Salas, Ignacio Ortega and Kris Lopez, all of whom earned postseason awards last year. Other seniors will include Mark Hostetter, Nicolas London and Renan Canales.

Jager and London will be back as part of the Houn' Dawg defense, which Bishop lauded for its intelligence on the field.

"Our team plays with a high soccer IQ that helps us decipher what the other team is trying to do, and they play with a lot of 'never quit' energy, which is vital when we do not have the ball and they want to get it back quickly," he said.

Other returning players to the lineup this year include juniors Eric Reyes, Blake Hamelink, Lester Perez and Clemente Reyes. Bishop also lists senior Ian Brown and junior Francisco Castro as newcomers to the varsity lineup who could provide depth over the long season.

Overall, the coach is optimistic and excited to help his team face the challenges of the season.

"We have a veteran group of players that have strong soccer IQs and soccer skills, while enjoying [the opportunity] to play soccer with each other," Bishop said. "I have always expected my teams to work hard and play for one another. It is a simple yet elusive chemistry mix that can only develop if the players want it to happen."

The Houn' Dawgs will begin the season on the road at Joplin on August 30 before traveling to the Cassville Classic from September 3-7. They'll play their first home match of the year against Greenwood on September 9.