Coach of Excelsior High’s netball team, Christopher Smart, has warned his rivals that the defending champions will be difficult to dethrone in this year’s ISSA senior urban schoolgirls competition. “We have lost 50 per cent of last year’s winning team, but we have good replacements, and we are much stronger this time around,” Smart said in a recent interview with The Gleaner. The competition begins today, and the defending champions were slated to play their first match on Friday, but with the late withdrawal of Denham Town High, they will not open their account until next Wednesday, when they play away to Campion College. Excelsior have lost Kimberly Hudson, Quanah Richards and Demona Davis, who have moved on to local tertiary institutions, but the three have been replaced by experienced players from other high schools according to Smart. “Racquet Davis, of St Hugh’s, is one of our new players who I think is a big plus for us along with another big-name player from a top team whose name I will not disclose now but these two players along the others from last year, have really made us much stronger,” he added. According to Smart who tasted success in his first year at the school, the biggest challenges in his group will come from former champions St Hugh’s High and St Andrew High. “Both teams are expected to be our main challengers in the group, but we will be playing them late in the season, and by that time, our new players would have gelled well in the team, so that should make a big difference,” Smart said. With the late withdrawal of some teams, there has been a few changes to the original schedule. Last year’s beaten senior finalists and junior champions, Gaynstead, will open their account in a Group F fixture at home today at 2:30p.m. Both the senior and junior teams will go up against Penwood High.