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Prep soccer: Optimism running high in Worthington

ZACH HACKER/DAILY GLOBE Worthington High boys soccer coach Smitty Ektnikphong talks to his team after practice Friday in Worthington. The Trojans open the season against Big South Conference favorite Waseca on August 28.

WORTHINGTON — The Worthington soccer teams finished with drastically different results in 2013, but each has the same goal in mind opening the 2014 campaign.

The objective is simple: improvement.

The Trojan boys finished the season with an 11-4-1 record. Their season came to a close in the Section 2A tournament with a 3-0 loss to Mankato West. A young girls team finished its season 0-12-1 after a defeat at the hands of Waseca in the section playoffs.

The good news for both squads is that they have a strong contingency of returning starters. Optimism is indeed running high as both enter their first seasons as members of the Big South Conference.

“We finally got into a conference so that’s going to be a big challenge with more teams and more games,” Trojans’ senior Andrew Johnson said. “But I think we can be as good or better than we were last year.”

One thing the Worthington boys have going for them is continuity. Much of the squad has ample time together on the pitch both in school ball and during the summer. Head coach Smitty Ektnitphong said that familiarity benefits the whole team because the older players don’t need to spend time getting used to one another and can help the newcomers adjust.

During the first week of practice, he was pleased with the role his senior athletes had taken on. It was a display of leadership by example.

“The ninth graders see how they work together and they follow suit,” Ektnitphong said. “That’s really encouraging.”

While the older players might be well accustomed to playing alongside one another, they feel having the young guys on the same page is vital to the team’s success.

“We have a lot of talent from all ages,” said senior Jesus Ordaz after practice Friday. “Right now we’re working on combining all of that. We’re working on getting that team chemistry down.”

Ektnitphong is excited that his team is joining the Big South, giving his team a conference title to play for. Winning the conference is the first long-term goal his team has in mind. However, being the new kids on the block when the four teams from the former South Central Conference have already been playing each other every year will present its challenges.

Worthington will without a doubt be tested early. It opens the season at home on Aug. 28 against defending conference champion Waseca, which finished 2013 at 17-1-1 with its only loss coming in the first round of the state tournament. Ektnikphong expects the Bluejays to be the team to beat again this year.

“We don’t have much,” Ektnikphong said of his team’s expectations entering the season. “Our goal is to play well and have a positive attitude at practice. That should give us a chance at victory. We’re not looking further than that.”

The Trojan girls lost only two seniors from last year’s squad, neither of whom were starters. Head coach Emily Ahlquist is confident that with a full season of experience under its collective belt, her team will be stronger this year than it was in 2013.

Along with the experience, the girls are hungry to recover from a winless campaign.

“They’re ready to step their game up,” Ahlquist said. “They didn’t like the results last year.”

The early days of practice were used to make sure the team not only had the fundamentals down — a lot of time was spent on ball control — but also that it was in shape. The ‘back-to-basics’ approach has been beneficial for both older and younger players.

Ahlquist said the newcomers to the squad have done a good job of catching on and that during the first week, she saw lots of improvement in their ball-handling abilities. The veterans of the group have been able to use the increased ability to add must-haves like combo passes to their repertoire.

Another reason there is excitement surrounding this year’s team is the strength of its midfield.

“They’re the playmakers,” Ahlquist said. “If you’re strong in the midfield, you should be in pretty good shape.”

An area of concern for the Trojans last season was their inability to score. In 13 games, they managed only three goals and never more than one in a single game. That’s something else Ahlquist expects to change this year as her group of forwards has gotten “stronger” and “more confident” in their ability to shoot.

All in all, Ahlquist said the goal each year is to help her kids grow as people and the ultimate takeaway from a season has nothing to do with wins and losses. Still, she is confident the ‘Ws’ will come. The Trojans’ first chance at one of those will be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at home against Mankato Loyola.

“We expect better results than last year,” she said. “I think this will be a decent team.”

Zach Hacker

Zach is the Daily Globe sports reporter. He has previously been a sports editor at both the Waseca County News in Waseca, Minn., and The Emporia Gazette in Emporia, Kansas. He is originally from New Richland, Minn., and now lives in Worthington with his dog; a beagle-corgi mix named Homer. In his spare time he enjoys spending time with family and friends, pontooning on St. Olaf Lake and watching professional and collegiate sports.

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