Behind a strong senior class and a pair of standout senior forwards, the Manhattan High soccer team put together a 2013 season to remember, going further in the playoffs than any team in program history and ending with a 2-0 loss in the Class 6A state title game.
Despite the departure of those seniors, Manhattan head coach Frank Alonso said he thinks this team has the opportunity to pick up where the 2013 team left off when it takes the field in Lawrence Friday evening at 7 for its season opener.
“This is my 15th year in the program, and I’ve never seen it as deep as it is going from top to bottom on the roster,” Alonso said. “We don’t have a superstar, like we had the last few years. But what we have is a very strong collective group, and as a coaching staff, that’s what you like to see.”
The 2014 squad will lean on its large and talented junior class, which represents two thirds of the roster and will be tasked with filling the scoring void. Junior captains Austin French and Kirkland Lambert combined for 16 goals a year ago and will lead the way in 2014.
“We probably return about a quarter of our goals from last year,” Alonso said. “Obviously, we lost D-I talent at the forward spot, but this is a collective group that is much deeper than last year, which is quite remarkable. We’re strong, we’ve got a good squad, and early on, we may catch some teams by surprise, because a lot of people think we’re going to be down.”
Helping bolster the team’s depth was the addition of four varsity players to the roster from outside the program.
“We had a boy come in from out of town, and we had a home-school boy come in,” Alonso said. “We had Gabe Awbrey who has been a soccer player up until he got to high school, he’s back. And we added a kid from Switzerland, a foreign exchange student. And it’s made us very deep and competitive.”
Alonso said the success of the program in recent years helped attract quality players to the team.
“We have record numbers trying out this year,” he said. “We had good players not make our program, and we had good players that in a normal year would be varsity players playing JV. So it’s a testament to a lot of things. We’ve just got a ton of players that know how to play well. We can throw a wave at you, which is exciting because it allows you to do a lot of different things.”
Senior captain Tyler Daveline said the team is staying grounded, despite all the success from last year and a 16-4-1 record.
“We broke a lot of records last year and it was huge for our program — it put us on the map, I think,” he said. “It’s a different group this year. I don’t think we’re going to be complacent this year, because we’re too ambitious. We’ve got a lot of new faces, and I’m pretty excited about this group.”
French said the team has good chemistry, in part because of the large group of juniors that has played together for years.
“We’re a young team made up of mostly juniors, but a lot of us have been playing together since we were 8 years old, so we have a lot of chemistry coming into the season,” he said. “Depth-wise, we have a lot of players at important positions that are solid. It allows us to pressure teams heavier than we could last year. We only played about 13 people the whole season. This year, we can really exploit teams with the fast movement to the ball.”
Alonso said perhaps his biggest challenge as coach will be to find minutes for 18 players instead of the 13 he used last year.
“The nightmare we have is to try and keep everybody happy, because it’s not going to be that 60-70 minutes a game,” he said. “That’s an issue that we’re going to have, and we’ve told them that competition is going to be the key for us.”
French said the group is confident, but not cocky.
“We know that we can’t get complacent, and we know we have a target on our backs for a lot of the Centennial teams that we beat last year in close games,” he said. “They want revenge, and we know we have to keep a cool head and play one game at a time. We’re confident this year, but we have to make sure not to be too confident.”
After coming so close during his junior year, Daveline said the team has stayed focused on winning a title in 2014.
“We want to be one game better this year,” he said. “We want to get one more win, that’s definitely the goal, and we’ve had our eye on that prize since last year.”
Manhattan starts the season at Lawrence before playing in the Wichita Titan Classic next week, opening against Wichita East at 11 a.m. Monday. Other tough teams in the bracket include Wichita Northwest and St. Thomas Aquinas.
“We have a monster start to the year, but all we can do is play the first game and do as well as we can,” Alonso said. “It should be interesting.”