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Indians back in state quarterfinals

By Joel Jellison

Before the season started, the core-returning group of the Manhattan High girls’ soccer team didn’t know what its ceiling was.

In a way, after dropping both games at the state tournament last season, the girls that would be returning started to wonder then, what will next year hold.

Before the summer ended, the team had lost coach Brett Nelson, got a new coach in Mike Sanchez, and some of the players admit they didn’t know what to expect in the upcoming season.

The Indians are now 15-2-1 as they head into a quarterfinal game against Wichita Northwest on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Anneberg Park. Win, and they go back to the state tournament. It’s the third straight year the Indians have made it to the quarterfinal round.

“I think we thought of (state) as a long-term goal because we didn’t know if we had all the potential to go,” senior Onyeka Ehie said. “But now we realize how we can work together on the field and do a lot of things we didn’t know we were capable of, and we are excited for that.”

Sanchez said when he took over the program and met with the team, he wanted to establish their goals early on.

“Coming in when I met with them, I had them write down all their goals and I would say the consensus was they all wanted to make it to state,” he said. “Brett did a good job here, he built the excitement for the program and what I hoped to do was continue the excitement.

“We will continue to play at a high-level and raise expectations, because we don’t want to be content or satisfied with having been there. We want to gradually get closer and closer.”

Still, the loss of a number of key senior players and a coach from the past few seasons, left a number of lingering questions.

“We had lost a lot of seniors, and, I’ll be honest, I questioned how good we were going to be this year,” senior Annissa Durar said. “I’m really impressed with how well we have been playing. I was hoping we would be good, but there were just a lot of unknowns.”

The season hasn’t always been easy to get to the record the team currently boasts, as consistent scoring was often a hard thing to come by.

When Sanchez stepped into the position, he looked to instill a more aggressive scoring philosophy. But the team seemed to struggle to grasp the changes early on.

“It’s either first half we come out hard or second half we come out hard, and the other half we just stop playing,” senior Amy Stockton said. “You’d wonder if we are going to come out looking to win, or fall flat if we keep playing that way.”

Ehie said it all started to change on May 1, just past the halfway point of the season, when the team traveled for a game at Wichita Northwest.

The Indians played from behind often in the contest, having to hit the equalizer to stay with the Grizzlies. Tied at 3, the Indians put the game away with a late goal to win 4-3.

“Before that game, there was a lot of tension on our team,” Ehie said. “That game, we were down the majority of the game and we all had to work together to come back and win, and ever since then I think things have gotten better and better.”

The Indians have had their fair share of the injury bug biting this season, even literally biting too. Senior Jennifer Then has missed the last two weeks, and will miss the rest of the season, after getting bit by a spider.

Kristen Thompson missed a few games in the goal with a nagging injury, and Ehie appeared to get knocked out in the first round of regionals, only to come back for the regional final last Thursday.

But no matter who has been on the field, the players have consistently stepped up into roles when asked.

Whether players were moved to different positions before the season, during the season, or were called upon to play period, they have always seemed to adapt fast, and adapt well.

“Every year in college, high school, club, league, you get new players in and you ask players to do different things,” Sanchez said. “You have holes in your team and you ask players to move, and credit to them because they’ve all adjusted well and they are equally as strong as they were last year.”

Even though they won the first game against Northwest at the beginning of May, any player on the team could indentify what the problems were in that game, and they knew how to fix it.

Durar said they didn’t get off to a good start against the Grizzlies, and it left them needing to create momentum in the second half. She said creating that in the first half and sustaining it would be important. Stockton echoed that by saying they needed to communicate better early, and score early too.

Sanchez said he knows it will be a tough game against a quality team, but there is no lack of confidence from him in this group of girls.

“Obviously it’s always hard to come back and play a team you’ve already played,” he said. “It’s hard because sometimes when you play a team two or three times, it’s harder to beat them the second time. But I’m pretty confident in my girls.”

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