Kersten Mullan’s response when congratulated on being voted No. 1: “At what?”
The Smoky Hill boys soccer coach doesn’t pay attention to things like preseason rankings — the Buffs, last season’s Class 5A state runners-up are No. 1 in the CHSAANow.com coaches poll — unless others tell her, but knows she has a team talented enough to earn that spot by the end of the season.
Mullan has been pleased to see a business-like attitude from her team thus far, especially when they got the news of the top ranking.
“They had the response I wanted them to have, they were like, so?” said Mullan, who enters her third season at Smoky Hill with a 20-11-4 record. “Obviously they thought it was great, but at the same time they are very well aware it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t play to your potential and you don’t win games.
“The hard part about being No. 1 is every team hangs their hat on how they play against us. Every coach is going to give the pre-game speech ‘this is the No. 1 team in the state, let’s knock them off and show them what we’re about.’ I’d be doing the same thing.”
The reasons for the top rankings are plentiful, though Smoky Hill did graduate several key pieces from last season’s 15-2-3 team: striker Jeff Gillis — last season’s 5A goal leader — all-state goalie Grayson Heath and standout midfielder/defender Hamilton Pennywell.
The hunger is high for the Buffaloes, who use the memory of the 3-1 loss to Boulder at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in last season’s state championship game as fuel.
“We try to put it out of our minds, but still keep it in there,” junior Kevin Del Mazo said. “We think about it a little bit each day, but it’s our drive to get better. We’re trying to go for it all.”
The improvement Del Mazo and fellow junior Walter Prince — talented midfielders who shift to forward this season — plus a group of center midfielders in seniors Tyler Glenn, Hunter Yoksh and Zach Clemons that Mullan calls the smartest group she’s ever had and a defense led by juniors Kevin Edgar and Colton Ladyga puts talent all over the field.
And that’s not to mention the reserves who are right on the heels of the starters in a few spots that keeps training at a high level.
The Buffaloes have yet to play a Colorado team — they open with Littleton Sept. 6 — but posted consecutive wins over two outstanding teams from Virginia on a road trip to open the season.
Coming from behind in back-to-back wins over Cape Henry Collegiate (3-2 in overtime) and Norfolk Academy (3-2), Smoky Hill displayed the resiliency to match its skill.
Gillis scored many big goals for the Buffaloes last season — including two game-winners in the playoffs — but in his absence, Prince, Edgar and James Grinage all came through with scores in clutch situations to Mullan’s relief and their own.
“Any coach will tell you, you never pass up a chance to coach a guy like Jeff, but to coach a team and get three big goals from three different players? I’ll take that, too,” Mullan said. “I think it proved to themselves they could do it.”
Mullan knows that nothing is a given, especially considering the grueling task it will be for the Buffaloes to repeat as champions of the rugged Centennial League.
Colorado Player of the Year Miguel Jaime is expected to play for Cherry Creek, while Aurora teams Cherokee Trail, Eaglecrest, Grandview and Overland all figure to be more competitive.
Grandview coach Brian Wood has six starters back and expects his Wolves to control the midfield in many games with the presence of seniors Jake Smith and Zach Huff. Wood expects a bump in scoring and strong defense.
Greg Watts graduated a large group of seniors from the Eaglecrest team that routed top-seeded Adams City in last season’s playoffs and lost in the quarterfinals, but the Raptors remain dangerous with junior goalkeeper Blend Avdili and senior striker Omar Sandoval back.
Mazen Kayali, who has served as an assistant at Grandview and head coach at Overland in the recent past, returns to the Centennial League in the head job at Cherokee Trail, which looks to build on its improvement from 2012.
Regis Jesuit coach Rick Wolf will be young, but has leadership in seniors such as Mitch Rossi and talent that could eventually excel in the Continental League.
In the EMAC, Rangeview coach Vic Strouse believes his midfield of seniors Jose Martinez and Alex Amador and junior Marcos Wolde will “cause some issues” and keep the Raiders among the league’s best, while Gateway must replace some key graduates to stay competitive. Aurora Central and Hinkley should again battle to be in the upper half of the conference.
Vista PEAK made the 4A playoffs in the first season of varsity play and coach Jason Elliott believes his team will be better.
Courtney Oakes is Sports Editor of the Aurora Sentinel. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. Facebook: Aurora Prep Sentinel
2013 AURORA BOYS SOCCER SEASON
Key dates: Aug. 29 — Regular season begins; Oct. 18 — Regular season completed; Oct. 20 — Playoff pairings posted; Nov. 6 — 3A-5A semifinals (5A at Legacy Stadium); Nov. 9 — 3A-5A state championship games (Dick’s Sporting Goods Park)
Aurora players to watch: Alex Amador, M, Rangeview, sr.; Blend Avdili, GK, Eaglecrest, jr.; Joseph Arriaga Bolanos, M, Gateway, sr.; Syrus Behbehani, M, Regis Jesuit, jr.; Jason Camey, F, Vista PEAK, sr.; Carlos Castro, M/D, Hinkley, sr.; Mario Castro, M/D, Hinkley, sr.; Jerdan Daniels, Cherokee Trail, sr.; Walter Delgado M/D, Vista PEAK, sr.; Kevin Del Mazo, F, Smoky Hill, jr.; Gunnar Dickey, Eaglecrest, sr.; Kevin Edgar, D, Smoky Hill, soph.; Tyler Glenn, M, Smoky Hill, sr.; Refujio Gomez-Lopez, M, Gateway, jr.; Omar Guerrero, M, Vista PEAK, jr.; Noah Hilt, M, Regis Jesuit, fr.; Zach Huff, M, Grandview, sr.; Alan Islas, GK, Vista PEAK, soph.; Colton Ladyga, D, Smoky Hill, jr.; Jose Martinez, M, Rangeview, sr.; Luis Mejia, M, Vista PEAK, jr.; Miguel Morales, GK, Gateway, sr.; Matt Muniz, D, Regis Jesuit, sr.; Alfredo Pasillas, D, Gateway, sr.; Walter Prince, F, Smoky Hill, jr.; Sergio Ramirez, M/D, Vista PEAK, jr.; Jorge Rodriguez-Triguero, D, Gateway, sr.; Mitch Rossi, M, Regis Jesuit, sr.; Scott Ryan, D, Regis Jesuit, sr.; Omar Sandoval, F, Eaglecrest, sr.; Jake Smith, M, Grandview, sr.; Brian Tanner, D, Grandview, sr.; Brayan Vasquez, D, Vista PEAK, jr.; Alfredo Velasquez, M, Vista PEAK, jr.; Creede Wheeler, Eaglecrest, sr.; Jake Whistler, D, Grandview, sr.; Marcos Wolde, M, Rangeview, jr.