DENISON — Even though a young Lady Jacket squad was suffering through growing pains and adjusting to a new coach, Denison found itself playing in meaningful matches right up until the end of the regular season.

DENISON — Even though a young Lady Jacket squad was suffering through growing pains and adjusting to a new coach, Denison found itself playing in meaningful matches right up until the end of the regular season.


With nearly two-thirds of the starting lineup returning intact, the hope is that the Lady Jackets can take advantage of the lessons learned, continue to show improvement and get to the playoffs for the second time in school history.


"They’re pretty used to the system. The big difference from last year is they’re unified and more of a team," Denison head coach Joe Horn said. "I’m excited to see how that translates to the field. I know we’ll improve off of last year’s record."


The first step in that direction comes as Denison opens the season against Kaufman in Sherman’s Buffalo Wild Wings Varsity Cup at 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Center Street fields. The Lady Jackets will face Dallas Jefferson at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Bonham at 11 a.m. on Saturday at Center Street.


It was a disappointing finish in 2013 for the Lady Jackets, who came up just short of making the playoffs despite a 2-16-3 record. In District 17-4A play Denison saw two games go to shootouts and the Lady Jackets earned four points but came up a point shy of fourth-place Anna and the final spot in the postseason. Denison went into its final match needing a win in regulation or a shootout win to advance but was unable to earn any points.


The same scenario may unfold again this season.


"I think us, Sherman and Anna will be real close gain," Horn said. "It will depend on how the bounces and injuries go."


Among those lost to graduation include first-team all-district pick Hannah Borg, who was second on the team with five goals and tied for the lead with five assists, and second-team choice Gabrielle Alaniz.


Senior Angel O’Brien will again be a focal point on offense after being named the 17-4A Utility Player of the Year. She had a team-best six goals and tied Borg with five assists.


"Improved leaps and bounds from last year," Horn said. "When I watch the film you can really notice it."


Only one other returning Lady Jacket scored more than one goal — junior Kaitlyn Bradshaw notched two. But Denison looks to have some depth despite three sophomores transferring and Mackenzie Balentine, who was third on the team in goals, not returning for her junior year.


Senior forward Zoie Voight, who missed last season with an injury, is back to provide another scoring threat.


"Getting her back will be a big help," Horn said.


Leading the defense is Harley Goodin, who returns after all-district first-team honors as a sophomore, and junior Angela Moreno was a second-team all-district selection in the back end. The third starting spot will come down to either junior Eunice Foullon or classmate Kayla Spiller. Senior Cristal Gonzalez is also in the mix.


"Last year I had three girls in the back I could count on," Horn said. "This year I have five."


There is some versatility from that group which could be a factor as well.


"If Harley plays forward that would open two spots," Horn said. "Kayla and Eunice, if they aren’t starting on defense, would be an option at outside mid."


Joining O’Brien in the midfield include seniors Miranda Poe and Zoe Reed and sophomores Stephanie Macedo and Yabeht Mendoza.


"They have different styles. I’ve got to see how they mesh," Horn said. "But they will be playing regardless."


In addition to Voight at forward, Bradshaw and sophomore Maria Jaimes will also be found at the top. A pair of freshmen — Madison Poe and Kaitlyn Jones — could see significant time off the bench.


Junior keeper Erin Armstrong returns between the pipes after sharing district Goalkeeper of the Year honors with McKinney North’s Clarissa Ledesma.


"You can tell she has more confidence now than last year," Horn said. "Hopefully she’ll get even better."


Junior Ashley Wood, who started on the junior varsity last season, will be the back-up.


In addition to the Varsity Cup, Denison will compete in the Gainesville Tournament while facing Decatur, Greenville, Paris, Princeton, Sulphur Springs and Durant in non-district action before opening District 17-4A play on Feb. 7.