By Craig Hull

Globe Sports Writer

When listing the many strengths of this year's Joplin High School boys soccer team, Ed Miller topped the list with returning all-state forward Josh Driver.

Driver, who scored 46 goals with 12 assists, earned second-team Class 3 Missouri State High School Soccer Coaches Association all-state honors last season. He totaled 104 points, the second most all-time in any one season in MSHSAA history, and the 46 goals were the sixth most in a single-season.

Unfortunately for Driver and the Eagles, all the notoriety he has earned will make him a focus for opposing defenses this fall.

"I think we have several other guys who can step forward and put the ball in the back of the net," said Miller, Joplin head coach. "And once they start putting them in the back of the net, opposing teams will have to pay them more attention."

The Eagles, after posting a 17-8-2 overall record last season and 4-5 mark in Ozark Conference play, open their 2003 season today in a 4:30 p.m. contest at Hillcrest. Joplin's home opener will be at 6 p.m. Thursday against Coffeyville.

Joplin lost one starter from last season (forward Wyatt Luebber graduated) and Miller will have most of the entire lineup from late last season on the field for today's game.

"We have experience at every position, depth on the bench and players who are very skilled," Miller said. "Our expectations are high. We've set them high. We want to compete for the league title, we want to be the No. 1 seed in the district and in order to do that, we have to beat two of the big three - Kickapoo, Glendale and Rolla."

Driver will break in two new accomplices at forward this season with freshman John Duncan and sophomore Chris Hernandez, a transfer from Mexico, completing the three-forward lineup.

"John has played for several traveling teams and with a select team in Springfield," Miller said. "He has played lots of competition soccer against some very good players. Chris got a chance to work out with us this summer."

Josh Loden returns after suffering a broken leg in the middle of last season. Loden and Sean Grubb will start at center midfield with Andy Lewis returning at outside. Nick Lawson, a starter at fullback last year, moves up to the other outside midfield spot.

"Josh is just aggressive as he was last season before the injury," Miller said.

The defense features Scott Yount, moving from halfback last year, with Jason Loden and Jonathon White at the outside backs.

Ryan Johnson, a starter last year as a freshman, returns at keeper.

"When you're playing just three backs on defense, experience is going to play a big part," Miller said. "They all have to be on the same page. From what I can tell in practice, it seems they can play without the mass confusion."