WAXAHACHIE — The 12th annual Highway 287 Varsity Tournament — a three-day display of some of the best soccer talent in Texas — is set to begin on Thursday at Lumpkins and Lion Memorial Stadiums.

Even the number of teams dropped from the previous year (32) to this year (13), Jason Venable, the head girls soccer coach at Waxahachie High School, said the tournament looks to be competitive as ever.

"In the past, we've had between 16 and 20 teams play in the tournament but we decided to scale it back this year and offer sports on a first-come, first-serve basis," he said, leaning so far back in his black leather office chair that the joints began to creak. "We really did it to get four solid games in so teams can find out where they are at before their district schedules start."

Though the tournament's victory last year, Aledo High School, will not return to defend its crown and Cedar Hill won't make an appearance, the field of play is littered with playoff-level competition. Waxahachie will join Alvarado, Kaufman, Lake Worth and Waco University High Schools, as well as Ellis County rivals Ennis and Midlothian Heritage High Schools.

After winning their first game last season in a 4-0 rout of Midlothian Heritage High School at Lumpkins Stadium, the Waxahachie High School Lady Indians dropped their next two rounds of the Highway 287 Tournament.

They lost to Cedar Hill High School — the tournament runner-up — 6-1 during the second game of a doubleheader and Savannah Duvall scored the only Waxahachie goal. A day later, they Lady Indians were shut out and beaten three goals to none.

Midlothian Heritage will compete in the Highway 287 Tournament for only the second year during their second year of existence as a program.

The Lady Jaguars finished 0-3-1 in the tournament's standings in 2016, taking losses to Waxahachie, Cedar Hill and Ennis high schools and tying 1-1 with Woodrow Wilson High School - teams in 6A and 5A classifications - during the weekend's Highway 287 tournament at Lumpkins and Lions Memorial stadiums.

Despite those defeats, Jaguar Head Coach Gerald Slovacek said the team showed promise.

"The girls learned to look at the big picture and not worry about wins and losses, they just worked on improving," he said after the tie against Woodrow Wilson. "I stressed to them playing weaker competition would not improve our game. It would hamper our progress to becoming a quality team."

All games will consist of two 40-minute halves with a 10-minute halftime. Games that end in a tie will count as a tie and all games, regardless of bracket implications, will follow this format.

All games will be played at 6 p.m. except Friday, when there will be a set of games at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. The Highway 287 tournament champion will receive a personalized trophy.

More than 20 current and former college athletes — like Sarah Hay, Katie, Hinds, Veronica Najera Mann, Breann Morris, Mackenzie Posey and Mikayla Acosta — used the competition of the tournament to help carve their niche on Venable's past rosters.

After facing a slew of injuries this year, Venable said he hopes this season's tournament will give young players an opportunity to show their growth and possibly find a place on the varsity team.

"Due to lots of injuries, I'm still trying to figure out my roster. We've announced a varsity team. We have about 17 girls right now. We may add to it or stick with what we've got right now," he continued. "We found a lot out during our first scrimmage. We played a lot of girls out of position at places they'd never played before but we've been working on at practice. We found out some fell right into that category and played the new position like they played there all their life and several that need some more work to get comfortable there. Game time is really important and invaluable for us in determining where we're at when district begins."

Venable said Tuesday's scheduled 6 and 7:30 p.m. junior varsity and varsity scrimmages against Midlothian Heritage, the Highway 287 Tournament, the Jan. 12 Aledo Tournament and the Jan. 20 scrimmage against Ennis would give his team at least eight games before their district opener.

They are scheduled to play Mansfield Summit High School at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 24 at Vernon Newsom Stadium.

Marcus S. Marion can be reached at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter @MarcusMarionWNI.