HUNTSVILLE – Sam Houston State soccer has turned the page from a season ago. For now, the new-look group will continue to play an underdog role.

Sam Houston has been picked ninth according to the 2017 Southland Conference preseason poll, garnering 86 points from the league’s head coaches and soccer media relations contacts, the conference office announced on Wednesday.

The defending league champion, Central Arkansas, is favored to repeat as regular-season champion. The Bears were followed by Stephen F. Austin, Abilene Christian and Houston Baptist – all of which received at least one first-place vote.

“I think we probably are placed in the poll where I figured we would be based on last year’s finish,” head coach Tom Brown said. “I don’t know how many changes in our roster are taken into account. It will be interesting to see how accurate this poll is once the season finishes up.”

The Kats are coming off an 11th place finish a season ago but are no stranger to turnaround campaigns. After finishing sixth in 2013, Sam Houston vaulted ahead to a runner-up result in 2014 and advanced to the conference tournament title game a season later.

“I think although we didn’t have a very good season last year we definitely have overhauled the roster,” Brown said. “I think we’re a much more talented team. I really like where we are with our chemistry and the effort they’re putting in the training. I think the combination with new players and the returners who want to prove last year was a fluke, we will turn this around and have a much better record than we did last season.”

This year’s squad features a number of new faces highlighted by the addition of eight freshmen and four transfers. The newcomers join 15 returning letterwinners including four starters.

“Our biggest thing is still getting players to know each other and the others they will be around during the game,” Brown said. “We spent some time working on some things defensively prior to the A&M game and this week will be a lot more working on attacking shape and cleaning up some things from that game. The big thing right now is trying to cram a preseason into two weeks which is a very unique challenge.”

Sam Houston opens its season a week from Friday against CSU Bakersfield in Edinburg. The Kats take on UTRGV two days later before returning to Pritchett Field for the home opener on Aug. 25 against Jackson State at 6:30 p.m. The squad opens conference play with three consecutive home matches beginning Sept. 25 against Central Arkansas.