Every time Tyler Harshfield walks into the gym at Eaglecrest, he’s bothered.
Not because of what’s there, but because of what isn’t.
The gym wall in “The Nest” is adorned with banners for school sports programs that have won league championships, made it to final fours or won state titles.
But none exist for boys soccer, which has lit a fire under Harshfield and his teammates to make sure there is one for the 2019 season.
“Last year, we would go in there and say ‘We’re going to put a banner up there next year, we’re going to leave our mark in this school as that team,'” said Harshfield, a senior midfielder.
“That’s really been our major goal.”
Having a unified goal has pushed coach Matt Best’s Eaglecrest team to new heights this season with an Aurora-best 6-0 record made it one of six teams remaining in Class 5A without a defeat through Sept. 17 (now 7-1 after suffering their first loss vs. Arvada West).
The Raptors — currently No. 6 in the 5A RPI standings and ranked No. 9 in CHSAANow.com’s coaches poll — dropped an early game to Poudre, but ended up with the win when the Impalas had to forfeit due to the use of an ineligible player.
The injury-plagued Raptors dropped five of their last six games a year ago and missed the playoffs, but with the vast majority of the team’s core back, they set their sites high.
“We were a young team last year and we’ve got this amazing crew of leaders that has really high expectations for each other this year,” said Best, now in his third season at the helm.
“We have a saying that we want to be family here and they are really playing like that this year,” he added.
“We’re not the most talented team, but the way they play together has been unbelievable.”
Much of that chemistry was formed over the summer, when many of the players would get together and play pickup games, even as they played for different club teams.
Senior AJ Heber said the results of that cohesion have been showing.
“We all knew we wanted to make the playoffs this year, so we got together and worked our butts off the whole offseason,” Heber said. “We had practices through the summer working towards that goal and constantly trying to improve.”
A change of Eaglecrest’s fortunes also required some bold strokes.
Looking at his personnel, Best thought the best way for his team to succeed was to capitalize on the Raptors’ speed and try to light up the scoreboard as much as possible.
He moved Heber from his regular spot on defense to right wing and it has paid off, as Heber has applied constant pressure to defenses and led the team in points through six games with eight (two goals, four assists).
Junior Ian Pullar is the team leader with three goals, while senior Ben Vongphandy and junior Eddie Correa have come up with big goals as well in what has been a diverse offense so far. The Raptors have 13 goals through six games, nearly half their total of 27 in 15 games last year.
A return to health for Harshfield has also been a boon to the team.
He played well as a freshman on the varsity team, skipped his sophomore year to play for a Developmental Academy team and then returned for his junior year, where he was off to a three-goal start through three games until he suffered a broken leg in a game against Chaparral in which he believes he was intentionally targeted.
Six months back on the field hasn’t been enough to get him back to 100 percent — he puts himself in the 70-80% range — but he’s found a valuable role.
“Obviously my reaction time isn’t what it used to be and I’m not as good as I was on the ball, but that should come with muscle memory and being on the field,” Harshfield said. “Right now, I’m just trying to direct and trying not to let anybody slip up and lose focus during games.”
While Best has gotten the offensive results he hoped for (the Raptors have scored multiple goals in every game), he has a defense he hadn’t quite bargained for in a good way.
The Raptors had three shutouts all of last season, but had four already through six games.
Juniors Alam Bushara and Arnold Gutierrez have been stout on the back line, while junior goalie JJ Farbes — who is back after a battle with injury last season — has also been outstanding in the nets.
The sustainability of Eaglecrest’s success will be challenged soon, especially with the arrival of league play, which has been difficult in years past.
The Raptors have gone 3-4 against Centennial League teams in each of the past two seasons, but haven’t had a winning record since they went 5-2 in 2010 (the closest was a 3-3-1 mark in 2012).
The league won’t be easy again this year as the teams that met in last season’s 5A final — Arapahoe and Grandview — both hail from the conference, while Cherry Creek and Cherokee Trail have traditionally been tough for Eaglecrest to beat.
“We want to change our mindset against the big dogs in the league,” Best said. “These guys really want to get that banner.”
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports