Boys soccer: Trojans begin push for state
WORTHINGTON -- Potential is just a word. Nothing is guaranteed.
Many an outstanding athletic team has done everything right and failed to win it all.
Head coach Smitty Ektnitphong and the Worthington Trojans boys soccer players know this. But they also know this: By being ready, by being at their optimum best, their chances are greatly enhanced.
After clinching a second consecutive Big South Conference championship, after a 29-game regular season unbeaten streak, after being seeded No. 1 for the upcoming Section 2A tournament, the Trojans now seek the biggest prize of all.
“I would be kidding if I didn’t say to you we want to win the state championship,” Ektnitphong said this week.
The journey begins Thursday in the Section 2A tournament in Worthington against Mankato Loyola. Thursday’s game was originally scheduled to be played at Trojan Field, but the site has been changed to Buss Field due to the poor condition of Trojan Field due to heavy rains in advance of football games played there last Friday and Saturday.
That the Trojan soccer players are immensely talented is already well-known. But Ektnitphong insists they are not thinking too far ahead -- they’re only thinking about “the next guy in front of us.”
The one-game-at-a-time strategy works well for them. It has helped them to a 15-0-1 record, and they have accomplished it with an impressive consistency. This has happened, to a great degree, due to the way the team practices and the way Ektnitphong insists on best efforts.
“I don’t think this team is afraid of losing. I think their greatest fear is not playing well,” said the coach this week in a revealing moment, “because they know that if they play well, they always have a chance to win.”
Worthington can boast of having the top goal-scorer in Minnesota Class A, in junior forward Jon Keodouangsy. As a team, the Trojans have scored a Class A-best 84 goals in the regular season. Victor Alvarez, another junior, leads Class A with 21 assists. The team’s goalkeeper, senior Sander Diaz, has a goals-against average of 0.74, which is No. 2 in Class A.
The Trojans, though, are all about team. It is drilled into each and every player from the moment he steps onto the practice field until the final second of the final match is played. They are coached to be accountable to each other -- that if they don’t do their jobs well enough, they are letting their teammates down. This is perhaps why Ektnitphong says practice is made even harder than games -- there, players learn the fundamentals that help them play at a consistently high level.
When an athletic team is very talented, it will sometimes lack focus. The WHS boys soccer team works diligently at avoiding that pitfall.
“I think the turning point would be against Mankato West (on Sept. 19). We didn’t play extremely well in the first half,” Ektnitphong remembers of this year’s showdown against the team that denied Worthington a 2016 state tournament berth with a one-point victory in the section finals.
So for 20 minutes the coach took out most of his starters. He sat them down and talked to them.
“I told them, ‘I know we want to beat Mankato West so bad, but that doesn’t mean you have to be so tense.’ At that point they needed each other in the second half. It didn’t matter who was in front of us … if they all did their task, we would be all right. We scored three goals in about an eight-minute span to really put the game out of reach.”
Worthington employs an offensive strategy that never wavers. It involves opening up the defense to create space, and then attacking that space. It requires disciplined forwards and it requires well-applied connecting shots. It puts an emphasis on getting off to quick leads, forcing the opposition to take more risks.
Ektnitphong said he was more concerned with the Trojans’ defense when the 2017 season began, but he needn’t have worried. During the second half of the season an already-outstanding defense became even better, thanks in part to the ample ground covered by junior Chris Cerda and senior Octavio Loza.
But it’s not just about two players.
“When we don’t have the ball, we’re all defense. Even though we do so well offensively, everybody on the field takes pride on playing defense,” said the coach. “That’s why they’re able to get the ball back so quickly.”In a good place
On the verge of beginning the team’s post-season effort, Coach Ektnitphong notes that rivals always adjust from what they experience during the regular season. Worthington has already secured two easy victories over its Thursday opponent. “But the bar just rises up,” he explains about his players.
“I feel real good. The way they’ve been playing, really consistent. We went 12-0 in the Big South this year. But just like the way we handled those guys -- we were really consistent.”
Why? Because everyone’s on board with the team concept, and with reaching the heights -- not just for themselves, but for their teammates.
“Like I said before the season started: This year more than ever, everybody can see this is a real team concept,” said Ektnitphong. “The attitude in the huddle is great. They know that last year what we did is great, but we have to do better.”