Amman Muzaffar’s perspective on the Cherokee Trail boys soccer team is entirely different this year.
The junior didn’t suit up for the Cougars last year and watched from the stands as his classmates went through a second straight two-win season. He decided he wanted to be part of a turnaround.
With a new coaching staff that inspired talented club players like Muzaffar, senior Brandan Wurst and others to join the program plus a month of voluntary preseason training that continues to pay dividends, the Cherokee Trail program has made an abrupt turnaround. The Cougars are 7-0 after a 4-1 victory over Columbine Sept. 14 and hold the No. 5 spot in CHSAANow.com’s Class 5A rankings.
“Some of us that didn’t play last year came together and said this is a new CT team that should be fun and exciting,” Muzaffar said. “We love our new coaches. It wasn’t to my club coach’s liking that I’m playing, but he got over it quickly because we’re having so much fun this year.”
Mark Hill — whose son, Tyler, is the starting goalkeeper — came on as the new head coach and has made sweeping changes that has made the program more attractive to players who attend the school, but previously only played club soccer such as Muzaffar and Wurst, the team’s leader in both goals scored and assists with six in each category.
Hill said he never mentioned the past two seasons — during which Cherokee Trail won two games apiece after a 14-win campaign in 2018 — when he interviewed for the job, rather he emphasized the direction he envisioned for the program.
“We went into it with the mindset that we’re going to surprise some people,” Hill said. “I think we’ve done that, now it is a matter of now we’re not under the radar for as many people and how do we work forward to sustaining it. The boys are playing really well and and buying into what we are trying to develop and I think we’re starting to see that bear fruit when the whistle blows.”
When the whistle blew for the first time of the season officially, Cherokee Trail already felt like it was a cohesive unit given that preseason training it hadn’t had in at least the past couple of seasons. With six new starters, that was exceptionally important.
Hill knew he had something when voting among the team for captainship showed that more than half the players on the roster got at least three votes, a mark of selflessness.
While the wins have piled up, the key result of the season thus far was the first one, a 2-1 win over the Far Northeast Warriors Aug. 24.
Had Cherokee Trail dropped that game — in which it got an early lead, but had to weather tremendous pressure from the Warriors — it might have tapped into the feelings of doubt that might have lingered after a 2-8 campaign in the spring. But instead, the Cougars were able to overcome the challenge and gain the confidence that comes with emerging victorious from a hard-fought battle.
“Facing adversity in your first game, no matter how much you prepare for it, still takes you by surprise,” Wurst said. “That was definitely a good game for us to get out of the way early. …Now we have the understanding that maybe we didn’t play our best, but we got out with the win and we could be really critical about our game.
“We said we don’t want to win like this again, we want to win with our style.”
Added Tyler Hill: “Getting that first result is always key to kicking off the season. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world if we lost, but coming off last season and how much we struggled to get good results, it has helped a ton carrying momentum.”
The Cougars’ style is vastly different than last season, when they scored only eight total goals in 10 games.
Through just seven games in the new season, they have 23 — including eight in a single contest against Prairie View — and already have tallied more goals than any season for the program since 2018. Nine different players have scored at least one goal and 10 own at least one assist.
The addition of Wurst to the lineup has been huge, as he returned to the team after playing as a sophomore (when he had no goals with five assists), but missing out on last season due to club commitments as well as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
By using his tremendous speed on the wing, Wurst has been a catalyst in many ways. He has finished when he has had opportunities — including a hat trick against Prairie View — but also has set up plenty of scoring chances for teammates.
“The easiest goals are always the most satisfying,” said Wurst, who has recorded a goal or assist in five of Cherokee Trail’s seven contests.
“It’s the combination of using your ability and knowing your teammates that you get to show off,” he added. “I love setting up those goals and knowing you make it easy for somebody else to score.”
Wurst has plenty of company in the scoring department, as senior Jayden Roque — who has worked well off Wurst — and senior Landen Sutterby have four goals apiece, and freshman Peter Deras (3) and Muzaffar (2) also have multiple scores.
“We’re heavy on ball movement, that’s really our focal point,” Hill said. “One of the things we coach tactically is that you are much faster without the ball on your feet, so we push them on ball movement. It’s what we spend a ton of time on in training.”
On the other end of the field, Cherokee Trail’s defense has allowed the opposition to score just twice in nearly 500 minutes and none in the run of play. Both Far Northeast and Columbine scored single goals on penalty kick opportunities.
Senior center back Josh Belzer, who is in his third season on varsity, has relished the vast difference, as opponents scored 79 goals in the past two seasons against the Cougars.
“I take extreme pride in the way our defense is playing,” Belzer said. “I’ve been a center back throughout my career at CT and to perform the way we are makes me feel great. We hold our shape well, we’re organized and we communicate. Tyler (Hill) has also come up and saved us on many opportunities, so he’s a great part of our defensive success as well.”
Tyler Hill gives credit to Belzer and senior Jonathan Smith for keeping the defensive unit functioning at a high level, even as it deals with injuries (such as the recent season-ending injury to senior Owen Starr) and shuffling personnel.
“We’ve mixed things around a lot, but Jonathan and Josh have been the backbone of our defense while the other positions change,” Hill said. “They haven’t made any mistakes and they’ve been great leaders off the field. We’ve been able to stay strong as a group even though we are playing better teams and we’ve kept our record of not conceding an open play goal.”
Both the offensive and defensive prowess of Cherokee Trail is about to be put to the test with the advent of Centennial League play, which begins with a big one for the Cougars in a Sept. 21 matchup with Grandview — a 5A semifinalist during the spring season — at Legacy Stadium.
While no league foe is easy, the most difficult portion of the conference schedule lies ahead for the Cougars in a three-game stretch that includes Arapahoe (Oct. 7), Mullen (Oct. 12) and Cherry Creek (Oct. 16).
Currently, Mullen is also 7-0 and ranked No. 1 in Class 4A, while Arapahoe is 7-0 and sits two spots higher in the 5A rankings than Cherokee Trail, while Cherry Creek was the 5A state runner-up last year and sits No. 10 in 5A.
“I can’t wait, I love playing our league opponents,” Belzer said. “I consider all of them rivals, so every game matters. Any game we lose it makes me extremely unhappy, I take it personally. I’ve been on a team where we haven’t had a lot of success, so I am hungry to beat our rivals and I know our team is extremely hungry to want to win our league games.”
The league season should set Cherokee Trail up in good position in the RPI standings for the postseason, but they are determined to maintain a focus on only the game in front of them.
“We have some tough, fun games coming up, so we’re all excited for those,” Muzaffar said. “But we’re focused solely on the one game in front of us right now.”
Winning has its benefits for any team, but the Cougars have felt it strongly.
Cherokee Trail players have been regularly recognized in the hallways by classmates, teachers and coaches for their play, plus congratulatory texts and messages on social media. That only has made the Cougars hungrier.
“I really have to give it to my fellow students and people at school, everybody has made an effort to support our team this season,” Wurst said. “You can even see it in away games. Our fans are traveling well and our students are really invested in this season, which builds on that connectedness.
“It is so much fun and when you have that positive reinforcement from everybody in the school, it doesn’t really feel like pressure. You are just excited and happy to represent your school. It’s a great feeling.”
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports