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Prep soccer: Experience will be key to Trojans quest for conference championship

WORTHINGTON -- The Worthington boys soccer team thinks this could be its year. The Trojans come into 2016 with the confidence expected from a squad that returns 10 starters from the 2015 team that took second in the Big South Conference and that ...

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Trojans returning letterman (back, from left to right) Chris Cerda, Ivan Rodriguez, Jon Keoduangsy, Octavio Lozo, Tony Martinez and (front, from left to right) Edwin Hernandez, Sander Diaz, Sergio Talamantes and Kevin Gutierrez. TIM MIDDAGH / DAILY GLOBE

WORTHINGTON -- The Worthington boys soccer team thinks this could be its year.

The Trojans come into 2016 with the confidence expected from a squad that returns 10 starters from the 2015 team that took second in the Big South Conference and that experience could push them over the hump. The coach thinks the biggest challenges will come from 2015 conference champs St. Peter and 2014 champs Waseca.

“I think it’s going to come down to three teams again -- Waseca, St. Peter and Worthington,” head coach Smitty Eknitphong said. “I feel like if it’s going to come down to three teams -- Waseca took the first one, St. Peter took the second one and I hope this is our year.”

Last season, the Trojans held a game-and a-half lead in over St. Peter in the standings with three games remaining, and couldn’t seal the deal. As a response, the coach is instilling a one-game at-a-time mentality into the squad, to ensure that it won’t let another conference championship slip between its fingers.

“It was tough to swallow, but we knew it was not going to be easy,” Eknitphong said. “We were in control, but once you let your guard down, you let everything slip away.”

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The conference schedule may be a tougher road to hoe outside of the top three teams this year, as the coach says the rest of the conference is improving.

“From what I understand, every team in the conference has narrowed the gap,” he said. “Their kids get a little bit older and get a little more experience. So I expect it’s going to be a tough challenge.”

The coach says he lives by the motto, “defense wins championships.” He believes this year’s team will go as far as the defense takes it.

“If our defensive unit holds up this year, I think we’re going to go a long way,” he said. “I still believe in the old testimonial that defense wins championships. The offense tells us how many we win by, but defense is the key.”

The number of goals the team scores will be greatly influenced by the play of senior striker Ivan Rodriguez. He made great contributions to the team the last two years as a sophomore and a junior, and the team needs another big season from him in his senior campaign. Goals may be a little harder to come by for the experienced forward this season, as he will no longer fly under any opponent’s radar.

“I think we are going to have to rely on Ivan Rodriguez to produce some goals for us,” Ektnitphong said. “I know he is going to have his work cut out for him. Because of the success he has had the last couple of years, the other teams are going to know who he is.”

Despite the returning experience, the Trojans are not without holes to fill this year. The team needs to replace central midfielders Tom Hasselmann and Jose Bahena.

“For us, the central midfield is our quarterback, it makes the engine go,” Ektnitphong said. “You rely on them to set up offensive attack as well as play defense when we don’t have the ball. We are trying out about four different players to try to fill in their spot, and at this point, we’re not sure if we have the right combination or not.”

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Girls look to take baby steps Coming off a  no-win season in 2015, the Worthington girls soccer team knows it isn’t going to show up and be Cinderella at the ball this year. But head coach Emily Ahlquist says she is hoping for improvement.

“We’re not going to all of a sudden be the underdogs that take over the league this year,” she said. “That’s just not going to happen. Our goal is to get better with each team we play against. If we lost to them 6-0 last year, our main goal is to lose by less this year. Obviously we want to win. Our ultimate goal is to win. But we want to improve on our personal play.”

The team is looking to improve its ball movement and off-ball movement. Ahlquist said she has been implementing drills to make sure her players continue to fulfill their duties on the pitch even without the ball at their feet.

“We’ve been focusing on passing and moving,” she said. “I found that when we got out on the field, the girls would get the ball and then pass it and say ‘Ok, my part’s done,’ but it’s not done when you pass the ball. You have to make a run or take a pass back or make a run to pull a defender off.”

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