A view from my side.
As the high school season comes to a close for most of the players in the state, the club season picks up. Club try outs start June 2 in this area and many of the players are already headed back to their club fields to start playing together again. I had lunch with most of my boys last weekend to see how many were planning on returning. All of them at lunch said they would be back.
So today, we start. Last count gave me at least 12 and as many as 18 players headed out this morning. I only rostered 17 last fall, and 5 of them are still playing or have another commitment today, so some of those are from other teams or are new. None of that matters, they just want to put a ball on the ground and play. For most of them, this will be a step or two up from their high school teams. For some, it will be about the same. But for all, it will be fun to be back with their old teammates from last fall.
Let me recap last fall’s season. One of the local clubs Boys programs imploded last fall, suddenly and unexpectedly during Try Outs. As a result, our club ended up with more boys that we had anticipated. On the last day of try outs, there were enough players to form a third team at our age level. I had been assigned to coach a different team, but due to the number of players showing up wanting to play at many age levels, they gave me this group.
This was a hodge-podge of players. Some local, others from an hour away. Some really talented, others decent enough, but not as skilled. I had not seen any of them at try outs having worked a different age group. I was handed a roster, told they were a Division II group and instructed to do the best I could.
I called an early practice, before the practice season officially began, to see what we had. Several of the players were on extended family trips, but I wanted to get the general feel of the team. We met, we played and I evaluated. DII was the right choice and I felt it might be a difficult season. We also did not have a keeper.
I met with the parents and gave them an honest assessment of what I felt our season would be like. With no keeper, we would have to rotate players through the goal. Since a team is often built around the skills of a keeper, it was going to be a long, hard season if we couldn’t find one. There were 13 teams in our Division. We would play 8 of them in the regular season and only 8 of the 13 would progress to the State Cup Tournament. I set our first goal to get a keeper. I set our second goal to qualify for State Cup. I told the parents we would be entered into our club’s fall tournament, not necessarily because I felt we were ready, but 1) because our club was the sponsor and 2) because I wanted three matches quickly to make additional assessments and adjust training.
Our season was a rags to riches to rags season. We found a player willing to play keeper a week before the first tournament. We also got crushed in that first tournament. We lost the first two and tied the third match. But, each match showed improvement. At the end of the third match, a player from the opposing team came over and asked if we had any spots open. He had been a guest with that team and wanted to play for us. Even though we tied, he said, he knew we were going to be good and he wanted to be part of it. Unfortunately, he had already signed to his club and they would not release him. But I used that as a motivator for the boys.
We went on to go undefeated in our State League play, tying the last match against what turned out to the #2 team in the state at the end of the season. As League play drew to a close, we were in 2nd place, having not played the first place team. The boys had come together nicely, our keeper, was learning and getting better with each match, and we were excited about our chances to win the Title. We had gone from rags to riches in three months. The boys were riding high, their parents were excited, the club was happy and all was good with the world.
Then, we entered a regional tournament after our League play ended to tune up and stay in prime playing condition. We played well, winning each of our qualifying matches. But they were costly. We had already lost a starting player early in the season to a broken ankle. Another player who was about to move into a starting position broke some bones in his foot during a mid-season practice session. At the tournament, two more players, both key starters, went down to serious injuries. All of a sudden, we were down 3 starters and a key reserve. On a team with a 17 man roster getting ready to enter the State Cup Tournament, we had fallen back into the rags.
I called a parent meeting after the last match of that regional tournament. While we had come in 2nd, the mood was somber. A pall had been cast over our season with the realization that we would not be at full strength for the State Cup. Everything we had worked for, everything we had trained for was now at risk. No one questioned our having entered the regional tournament, it was part of the training plan, but I wanted to make sure the parents and the players had a realistic expectation for what was to come.
At the State Cup tournament, we didn’t even break out of Group Play. We tied a match we should have won, barely won a match we should have dominated, and lost a match to a team that we had already beaten twice. Interestingly enough though, even with our short roster, had we been able to finish one of the really three solid opportunities we had in the match we tied, we would have progressed. So, all in all, the tournament ended up giving us hope. We met at the end to talk about that and everyone left with their heads held high and their spirits lifted.
That sense of “we could have” from last fall has carried over. These boys are excited to get back together. They are ready to prove to everyone that they are truly the best side in our state at our age. They understand that injuries are part of the game, but they also understand that they still could have gone forward despite those injuries. The strikers are eager to train. The mid fielders are pulling at the reins and are ready to play. The defenders are confident. Our keeper’s high school season is still in play, but I hear he is also eager to return, so everyone is excited.
But what really excites me is that there are boys from other clubs and boys from within our own club that want to be a part of our group. Like the player from the other team at the opening season tournament last fall, there are players out there that saw what we did and want to be a part of it. That is exciting and that is special. The expectation this year is not to simply make the cut. The expectation this year is to win it all. Players want to be part of a team that has expectations like that.
Our expectations are indeed high as another season begins.