The lights went out at Stutler Bowl on a crisp fall day last November, yet it was a long time until the Smoky Hill boys soccer team emerged from the lockerroom.
A team loaded with returning talent from a trip to the 2012 Class 5A state championship game and carrying the No. 1 seed into the postseason — rightfully or not — was supposed to be celebrating a victory, not sitting in stunned silence after a loss to heavy underdog Fort Collins.
Yet that was the scene that transpired after a 2-1 loss to the Lambkins, which brought to an end a success, but in the end flawed, season for coach Kersten Mullan’s Smoky Hill team. With 12 seniors on the roster
“I think we got a little ahead of ourselves last year and forgot we needed to put in legitimate work,” said Mullan, who is aiming to guide the Buffs to 14 wins or more for the third time in her four seasons at the helm. “From what I’ve seen, we do that every now.
Every day, these guys have a renewed focus and determination to set things right.
“Being out in the second round is not a good feeling,” she added. “I really believe a lot of things have to work out. On paper, I didn’t have the players to make it to the state championship game in 2012, and then last year, on paper, we had no business not winning. I think that is one thing these guys have discovered, that it takes a lot more than just having the players. There has to be something else.”
Smoky Hill again looks great going into the 2014 season on paper.
Senior star Kevin Del Mazo could have skipped his senior season to play for the Colorado Rapids Academy program like so many of Colorado’s other prep standouts, but he felt compelled to come back. The electric Colorado Mesa University-bound midfielder paced the Buffaloes with 15 goals and 10 assists last season, while senior forward Walter Prince (12 goals, 10 assists in 2013) is also back in the fold and teams with senior Sam Franceschi up top.
Seniors Christian Carrillo and Zach Clemons and Hinkley junior transfer Bryan Gonzalez join Del Mazo in the midfield and seniors Colton Ladyga, Kevin Edgar and Daniel Beccera key an experienced backline, while there’s another senior in the nets as well in Andrew Franceschi.
The intensity of being a senior has been the ultimate motivation for the Buffaloes.
“You never really understand what it’s like to be playing your last season and your last game until it actually comes around,” Ladyga said. “We’re going to take it one game at a time and we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves. …Our motto is back to basics, love and respect. We love the game, we respect it and we have fun. We’ll work our hardest and hopefully we come out with a state title. That’s everybody’s goal.”
The seniors also know that there’s no more next year and one more disappointing postseason loss is the end for them.
“We’re going to try to get that ring again,” Del Mazo said. “I think we learned a lot from last time when we lost the state championship. We’re going to have that in the back of our heads and we’re going to fight harder.”
Mullan is anxious to see what the team can accomplish with the majority playing for her for a fourth season.
“It’s special to me because they are my first senior class, they started with me and that always makes things a little different as far as my relationship with them,” she said. “They’ve obviously seen it come from when the program was not so great (5-9-1 in 2011), then saw some of the best leaders they’ve ever seen come through in 2012 and realize what can happen.”
Smoky Hill does care about winning the Centennial League championship, although Mullan joked her team is only good for winning one championship per season and she’d rather have the big one. The league remains one of the strongest conferences in the state, with Brian Wood’s Grandview team expected to be in the upper half again.
The Wolves tied the Buffs for the best conference record last season at 6-1 and although 12 seniors graduated — including the entire backline and goalkeeper — Wood has seen enough in the preseason to believe his team will be back in the hunt. Speedy senior Jorge Rangel and physical sophomore Rhys De Sota should give Grandview enough scoring punch if the new-look defense can keep the Wolves in games.
Cherokee Trail qualified for the 5A playoffs in 2013 Mazen Kayali’s first season as head coach and the trick will be returning to the postseason for the Cougars, who are without a number of key regulars.
Eaglecrest coach Greg Watts hopes to make a push into the postseason with a roster that gives him more balance and “tactical flexibility” than he’s had in awhile, while senior center midfielder Michael Prichard’s return after missing last season is a definite boost. Yilma Kebede took over and Overland guided the Trailblazers to two wins in their first three games, matching the 2013 win total already.
Coach Vic Strouse believes his Rangeview team will again be a factor in the EMAC and he’s boosted the team’s non-league schedule to help with postseason seeding. How an entirely new defense develops throughout the season will be the key to the Raiders’ fortunes.
Olaf Siverson and his Gateway team suffered through a frustrating 2013 season in which a lack of finishing in key spots led to a slew of one-goal losses. With leading scorer Refugio Gomez-Lopez back in the middle of the field, more depth and a number of other players who have “taken ownership” in Siverson’s words, the Olys could very well change their destination this season.
Aurora Central has won 11 games in each of the last two seasons and appears loaded with firepower for 2014, which could mean a third-straight double-digit win season. Hinkley must replace the graduation of a significant amount of experience from a team that won eight games last season and qualified for the 5A playoffs.
Vista PEAK continues to grow on the 4A level, with coach Jason Elliott pleased to welcome back 11 seniors, the majority of which remember last season’s tight first round playoff loss to Valor Christian.
One of those returning seniors is forward Jose Ayala, who made the All-Colorado 7 first team last season, as did junior goalkeeper Alan Islas, who earned the honor for the second straight season.
Elliott is hoping to win the league title outright this season — Vista PEAK had a share of last year’s crown — and beefed up the team’s non-league schedule with a variety of 5A teams to help his team raise its level.
Courtney Oakes is Sports Editor of the Aurora Sentinel. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. Facebook: Aurora Prep Sentinel. IG: Auroraprepsentinel
2014 AURORA BOYS SOCCER SEASON
Key dates: Aug. 21 — Regular season begins; Oct. 17 — Regular season completed; Oct. 19 — Playoff pairings posted; Nov. 5 — 3A-5A semifinals (5A at Legacy Stadium); Nov. 8 — 3A-5A state championship games (Dick’s Sporting Goods Park)
Aurora players to watch: Jose Colton Alvarez, Aurora Central, sr; Jose Ayala, Vista PEAK, sr.; Sterling Barnes, GK, Eaglecrest, sr.; Daniel Becerra, Smoky Hill, sr.; Alex Bender, M, Grandview, sr.; Joey Bonnell, GK, Regis Jesuit, sr.; Ian Cerro, M, Grandview, sr.; Kevin Del Mazo, M/F, Smoky Hill, jr.; Rhys De Sota, M, Grandview, soph.; Garrett Dickey, D, Eaglecrest, sr.; Kevin Edgar, D, Smoky Hill, sr.; Austin Fisher, F, Grandview, jr.; Andrew Franceschi, GK, Smoky Hill, sr.; Sam Franceschi, M/F, Smoky Hill, sr.; Sam Frankovsky, F, Regis Jesuit, jr.; Refujio Gomez-Lopez, M, Gateway, sr.; Omar Guerrero, M, Vista PEAK, sr.; Jax Heindmarch, D, Regis Jesuit, jr.; Nick House, D, Grandview, jr.; Victor Irechakuwu, M, Overland, sr.; Alan Islas, GK, Vista PEAK, jr.; Geoff Kice, GK, Regis Jesuit, sr.; David Kim, M, Grandview, sr.; Colton Ladyga, D, Smoky Hill, sr.; Eric Lundeen, D, Grandview, soph.; Luis Mejia, M, Vista PEAK, sr.; Cesar Mejia Mendoza, GK, Gateway, sr.; Cristhian Sanchez Ortega, M/F, Overland, sr.; Josh Gomez Payan, M, Gateway, sr.; Jose Pizana, GK, Gateway, sr.; Michael Prichard, M, Eaglecrest, sr.; Walter Prince, F, Smoky Hill, sr.; Jack Ramirez, M/F, Rangeview, sr; Sergio Ramirez, M/D, Vista PEAK, sr.; Jorge Rangel, M, Grandview, sr.; Nick Rigar, M/F, Eaglecrest, jr.; Juan Antonio Ruiz, Aurora Central, sr.; Taran Stafford, GK, Grandview, sr.; Brayan Vasquez, D, Vista PEAK, sr.; Alfredo Velasquez, M, Vista PEAK, sr.; Marcos Wolde, M, Rangeview, sr.