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Boys soccer aims to bring home their first state title

Justin Wingerter, Staff Writer

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A title soccer teams across the state strive to have: 2017 Boys Soccer 5A State Champions. As the state runner-up in 2016, the varsity soccer team is in a position to try and win this season’s title. Junior Matthew Ricci, the starting goalkeeper for the team, said he and his teammates are prepared to do almost anything to start a legacy.

“I think we can go as far as we can really go,” Ricci said. “If we think we can make it to the state championship and if we put the work in and work as a team and keep winning games, I think we can really make it far and maybe even win state.”

The soccer team is 12-0-1 as of Oct. 18. Ricci said there is no one single reason why the boys soccer team has been so successful. He said it comes down to a multitude of factors that allow the players to dominate with such ease.

Head coach Jason Pendleton, who has been coaching soccer for 25 years, said he has seen a difference in players’ efforts and work ethics on this year’s team compared to previous ones.

“So far we have played with such energy and passion in every match, and last year that wasn’t always the case,” Pendleton said. “So, hopefully, we can keep that expectation rolling and [hope] that the players will keep fighting and grinding every second that they are out there so that we can continue to have success.”

With an undefeated regular season record, Pendleton said the team’s ability to work with each other has also had a tremendous impact on their play on and off the field.

“Everyone works together really well        and I think it’s just a good chemistry,” Ricci said. “As well as off the field, we have good relationships … of course, we have a few arguments here and there, but we always get them settled and we get back on the field and do what we need to do.”

These close relationships with one another is why freshman and junior varsity midfielder Jake Rafanan said he believes players are more able to create plays on the field during games.

“Since we all go to school together and we see each other every day and know each other very well and all get along well, once we see each other on the field, we know how their personality is and how they play best and we try to incorporate that,” Rafanan said. “It really helps us on the field create plays and win games.”

Sophomore and junior varsity defender Michael King said he has experienced this first-hand from upperclassmen helping him improve and teaching him lessons so he won’t have to learn them the hard way on the field.

“Some of the juniors and seniors have helped me [too] because a lot of them last year or the year before were in the same position that I am in,” King said. “They know what to do and how to handle it and they have helped me with things like how to become a better player or how to make a more positive impact on the team as well.”

Varsity captain and defender, senior Ethan Diedel, has been one of the leaders on and off the field, but he said he’s not the only leader on the team.

“I try to be the best leader I can be,” Diedel said. “We have a few seniors that are positive influences on the team, so we collectively as a group try and be the best leaders that we can for the underclassmen and the juniors as well.”

With an influx of new talent from all grades, Ricci said Diedel and other veteran leaders like Jake Glass have been very welcoming to the new players joining the team and include them as much as possible in everything they do.

“They are willing to help [the team] through anything and I felt very welcomed when I first came here,” Ricci said. “They knew that all had special talents and they knew they could build off of those and make [us] become better players and, also, a better team.”

Not only do Diedel and Glass welcome new players to the team, but Ricci said they also lead by example with their unprecedented work ethics and their unique abilities to push players to get better.

“I definitely think Ethan Diedel is a very good leader to the whole team,” Ricci said. “He always helps me and, even if I make a mistake, they motivate me. That’s what I like about them the most and that’s why I think Jake Glass and Ethan Diedel are the two biggest leaders on the team.”

But Ricci said that these two leaders are not the only reason why this group of players is special. He said the team is too fast and too well-rounded to be contained on the field.

“I think speed is our biggest strength,” Ricci said. “In our front three [forwards], we have Aidan Bates, Andrew Lawrence and Luke Rafanan who are all very strong up top, very quick and, of course, they are all very different in their own ways. For example, Bates is a finisher. Rafanan is more of a complete player: he has the speed, he has the touches and he has all the moves. But, I also think that our defense is pretty solid as well, of course, having Ethan Diedel and Dawson Borninkhof back there with me. They always do their best to not let anything go against me and, so far, they have not let anything go against me and so far they have done a really good job.”

King said what helps the team the most is that everyone has an “attacking mindset,” setting them up for the advantage on offensive plays as one of their strengths. This playing style has led to wins like the 11-1 win against De Soto High School after being down 0-1. However, Diedel said he believes that both the team’s midfield and defense are much better than people give them credit for.

“People tend to look past the midfield and the defense,” Diedel said. “We are solid as a whole team. We do have some key players up top, but as a whole team we work hard for each other, and that’s something teams think they can get by if they can stop our offense. But they don’t realize that we also have a good defense and a good midfield to try and stop them as well.”

Diedel said the team has been so successful this year because of the influx of new talent.

“There’s been some really good additions to the team this year, [and] I definitely think before we knew all of these guys were going to join, we still thought we had a chance at winning state, but now it puts us in a better position, and since we have had a lot of good performances from the new guys, it’s really nice to say some more guys want to join in and play high school soccer,” Diedel said.

King and Ricci both said that coaching has also positively impacted the team. Pendleton said that he feels his 25 years of coaching have taught him valuable lessons that have made him the coach he is now.

“Having done it for so long, I think I have a depth of understanding on things that I have made mistakes on in the past and things that have gone well,” Pendleton said. “So I can draw upon all of those experiences to try and make an environment that is more conducive to success.”

Diedel said he has also drawn upon his past experiences from the last few years to help him become a better leader on and off the field.

“I’ve experienced a lot of tough matches throughout my last three years” Diedel said. “I’ve had some great leaders in the process, and I’ve had people pave the way for me and I hope to pave the way for others on the team this year.”

King said he and his teammates do not want to just settle for one state championship and be done, they want to set a legacy and win next year’s state championship as well as the following ones, too.

“I feel like a lot of the juniors right now are also really good leaders and I think that will allow a lot of the juniors to take the seniors spots next year,” King said. “We also have a lot of good sophomores that will be able to take some of those spots as well and hopefully be able to continue to win.”

King said he believes that this year’s freshman class will be able to develop into solid players by next year because there were not as many freshmen that tried out. He said the small class size allows them to be “more well-rounded players” that are able to improve quicker and fill much larger roles than they would have been able to.

“The freshmen this year are solid and, since it’s a smaller class, it will help the freshmen that are playing learn more because they will get more attention and, in turn, be able to create better plays and become more dynamic as a player,” King said.

Pendleton said the team should only improve over the offseason as well. The leadership of this year’s junior class and a “talented group of soccer players” in the sophomore class should lead to a smooth transition into next season.

“We have a talented group of players on both JV and varsity and there are a ton of underclassmen and a ton of juniors on this team,” Pendleton said. “Hopefully, the senior class can lead us to a state championship this year and then I would expect next year’s seniors — and those rising juniors — to step up and fill that void and create an environment that will hopefully put us on another pathway to potential success.”

As the state championships are approaching for boys soccer, many players are faced with the anticipation of the title they have practiced and worked so much for.

“This is a talented group of people and in order to be successful it has got to be about the group and not about any individual,” Pendleton said. “If they play to the best of their abilities they should be in a position to potentially win it all.”

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Boys soccer aims to bring home their first state title