STARKVILLE — Dylan Howard had no idea how much he would grow to love the cones and what they represented.
Littered throughout the Starkville recreation field, the cones were defenders or obstacles Howard and his Select teammates had to work their way through with the ball to develop the deft touch needed to move with pace and vision.
Even though he was just beginning his teen-age years, Howard realized youth soccer coach A.J. Foster’s approach was a little different and that the skills the Jamaican was teaching him and his teammates were going to pay off, especially for someone like him who wasn’t the biggest player on the field.
“We worked on a bunch of little touch drills,” Howard said. “We would warm up and there would be 10 minutes of juggling. We would get in a circle as a team and juggle with one ball. He really took a lot of time for us to get that. I don’t know if he saw it in everybody, but he saw it in me.”
Years later, Howard can look back at his Division II beginnings and relate how those lessons helped him build a foundation to help him become one of the state’s top midfielders. Even though Howard may be in the 5-foot-8 range and weigh 170 pounds only after a very hearty meal, he polished the touch he learned as a youth player and capped a solid senior season with the Starkville High School boys soccer team. Howard had three goals and four assists (10 points) and helped direct an attack that pushed Starkville to the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State title match.
For his accomplishments, Howard is The Dispatch’s All-Area Boys Soccer Player of the Year.
“(Coach Foster) mentioned it a couple of times and said, ‘You probably never will get the size, so touch is what you’re going to use to your advantage,’ ” Howard said. “I kind of got that in my head and I saw what he was saying and I liked using my touch.”
Howard recalls those days as a 13- to 15-year-old and playing up with older guys like Kase Kingery, Price Day, Addison Watson, Alvaro Pichardo, and others. He said Foster used him in several positions, including left back and left winger and sweeper, but it didn’t matter where because juggling and touch were things Foster wanted everyone to develop.
Howard knew he wasn’t going to hit a growth spurt that was going to help him body up to bigger players, so he took Foster’s training sessions to heart and saw improving his touch as a way to gain advantage over others. It didn’t take him long to combine the touch with confidence. With added confidence came the ability to see the field better and for longer periods of time with the ball at his feet. Those skills allowed him to read the game and become a midfielder who conducted the Yellow Jackets’ attack with the poise of a maestro.
Howard’s touch and pace grew so refined that Starkville High boys soccer coach Brian Bennett said earlier this season that Howard was in the same category — if not better than — Kingery, who played soccer as a freshman at Missouri State University last year.
“Dylan has maybe gotten a touch better than Kase, and that is saying something,” Bennett said. “He is so confident and he is smooth. He does things with the ball that are amazing.”
Foster, who is working on completing his Ph.D at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla., said he started coaching Howard when he was 12. He said he stressed the importance of a solid first touch to all of his players and emphasized that it was better to do something in as few touches as possible. Once the players grew comfortable with the ball, Foster said he worked on blending the skills together so a player’s job wasn’t complete until a teammate received their pass, which meant that the initial player had to read the game and deliver a ball the right way and in the right space.
Foster said he recognized Howard’s intelligence for the game and encouraged him to concentrate on the drills because he believed they would help him as he matured.
“I am not surprised he has become like a field general,” Foster said. “What I look for are the skills each player brings to the game and how I can bring them out. Dylan is such an intelligent player and has a great understanding of the game. Kase Kingery was playing midfield at the time, so Dylan couldn’t play there, but I knew he had all of the attributes for a good midfield player.”
Foster recalls telling Howard he wasn’t going to become the biggest player. To make up for a lack of size, Foster emphasized to Howard that the harder he worked to improve his touch, the faster he would be able to play. Without a deft touch, he told Howard he wouldn’t be able to outrun opponents. With a good handle, though, Foster told Howard he could be elusive.
It turns out Foster was exactly right because Howard learned to use his ballhandling and size to create contact and then work off it.
“If you’re not comfortable with the ball at your feet every time you face pressure you’re going to be in trouble,” Foster said. “That is why we pushed the first touch. If you can deal with pressure with the first touch, everything else is easy. Dylan took to that. He really took to that core philosophy. I am really excited he is doing so well.”
Howard appreciation for Foster’s lessons comes through in how he talks about the training sessions and the drills Foster used with the youth players. He said it didn’t take him long to develop an initial comfort level. As he moved up to high school and travel soccer, Howard said he enjoyed working individually with the ball. He said he often takes a ball and works by himself on dribbling or trapping or kicks a ball against a wall to increase his dexterity of both of his feet — inside and outside — to the point that at times this season he looked like he was gliding up and down the field with the ball.
Howard, who will play soccer at Itawamba Community College in Fulton in the fall, credits Foster with helping him to realize the first part of his goal.
“(Coach Foster) came at soccer from a whole different way,” Howard said. “It was more psychological to him. It wasn’t just about guys running around the field. He used to tell us we were all connected, 11 players connected on a string. When one shifts, everybody has to go with him. It is 11 brothers. It is not every man doing his own thing. There is one player. He is the No. 1 person who inspires me the most. He is a great guy. He is so humble.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.