Manhattan High senior forwards Eric Gray and Peter Maier have been playing the same position, on the same teams, for the last six years.
Not surprisingly, when one of the two isn’t out on the soccer pitch, it changes the way the other plays the game.
“They are not the same player when the other one isn’t playing,” Manhattan boys’ soccer coach Frank Alonso said. “They’re good friends and they’ve got 32 goals this year. They’ve got more than 50 goals between them, which is a lot of goals for high school.”
Whether it’s just a matter of repetition — the two play on the same high-school team and the same club team — or a connection based on their longstanding friendship, they often get the best of opposing defenses, placing the ball exactly where it needs to go for easy goals.
“I feel like we have a connection,” Gray said. “I just play pretty well with him and we know what the other likes to do. It helps to be on the field at the same time.”
Maier said knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses as players give them an edge.
“I think we just know how to tolerate each other, honestly,” Maier said. “We both make mistakes, but I know his strengths and his weaknesses, and he knows mine, so just the ability to know that I can play him a certain ball and he’ll go get it.”
Midway through the season, Maier missed some games because of an injury. Sophomore Kirkland Lambert took most of his minutes and thrived in the role, but Gray’s role changed to accommodate the sophomore. Alonso said he noticed a difference in the way he played without Maier on the field with him.
Gray said the transition was difficult.
“It kind of forced me to play more of (Maier’s) position, but once he came back, it left me free to run around and just play,” Gray said. “We’ve always played up top together. We’ve become fairly good at finishing.”
Alonso said the two are able to communicate without words or gestures.
“They seem to understand each other without communicating,” Alonso said. “They work hard and play for each other and there’s a healthy competition between them.”
Both players indicated there is a friendly competition to see who can score more goals. The two are currently tied with 16 each after both scoring three against Wichita South Tuesday night.
“It actually pushes us to do better,” Maier said of the goal distribution. “In the back of my head, I don’t want him scoring all the goals — I want some of it. He had a patch earlier in the season when he wasn’t scoring as much and was doing more assisting, and I was scoring more goals, then he had the games that I missed where he scored more. It’s competitive, but in a positive way.”
Maier said the two rarely get angry with each other, even when mistakes are made up front.
“We don’t really get frustrated with each other and we can work together,” Maier said. “I think we’re able to take the majority of the defenses when we’re working well together.”
Alonso said the two forwards’ ability to work together is an advantage.
“Those boys up front are top-level players and forwards, and when they play together, we have a chance,” he said. “It’s not just about them, but it helps to have good forwards.”
With a rematch against Washburn Rural on Thursday in Topeka, this time to decide a regional champion, Maier is eager to get a chance to defeat the Junior Blues. He was injured in the first matchup. This time around, Lambert is the one injured, meaning the bulk of the scoring load will fall on the pair’s shoulders.
“It puts us in a position to have another guy that can finish,” Gray said of Maier’s opportunity to play against Rural the second time around. “We just lost Kirkland with an injury, so it’ll be good to have Peter back but bad to have Kirkland out.”
Alonso said the two will share a legacy of winning as both are high on the list of all-time Manhattan goal-scorers.
“Neither one has an ego, and they work hard for the team,” Alonso said. “They are excellent students and really good teammates and all-around good guys. Both as of tonight are in the top six goal-scorers in MHS history.”
Manhattan faces Rural in Topeka at 6 p.m. Thursday.