A year ago, the Snohomish High School boys soccer team was poised for something special. The Panthers were both seasoned and talented. They were undefeated, nationally ranked and favored to win their third Class 4A state title.
Then in a flash it was gone. The Panthers were upset in the first round of the state tournament. Opportunity appeared to have passed Snohomish by.
Fast forward to the present. The 2013 Panthers find themselves surpassing the accomplishments of their more-heralded predecessors, and this weekend Snohomish is looking to claim what the Panthers thought would be theirs last May.
"This is exciting, this is fun," said Snohomish coach Dan Pingrey, whose team faces Thomas Jefferson in the semifinals at 6 p.m. today at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup. "It's been a fantastic season. When I say I didn't expect it, it's not because I don't have confidence in these guys. They've shown they're very good. It's just that when you lose a big chunk of bodies and have to come up with a brand-new team, oftentimes that's a rebuilding year. So this has been great. We've played well, played hard, played together, and that's what makes it a lot of fun to coach."
This year, it seemed a reset was in order for Snohomish. The Panthers, who at one point last year were ranked No. 1 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America national poll, graduated a substantial portion of last year's team, including forward Reilly Cross, The Herald's boys soccer player of the year. Then they lost players to academy programs that discourage participation in high school soccer, including hotshot sophomore midfielder John Magnus. Just three full-time starters returned. Even Pingrey was resigned to a transition year.
But Snohomish opened the season with an emphatic 6-0 victory over Monroe, and the Panthers just kept winning, building an eye-popping 19-1 record. The only blemish on the schedule was an April 23 loss at Mount Vernon in which Snohomish was missing key players. The Panthers have been just as dominant in the postseason, winning their four district and state games by a combined score of 13-1.
"We've had a great season," senior winger Juan Machuca-Garin said. "We've all been playing well."
So why have this year's Panthers done what last year's couldn't?
Snohomish's three returning starters play big roles. Machuca-Garin and senior forward Tyler Mayer, the team's leading goal scorer, have led Snohomish's offense, while senior Kieren Raney has anchored the midfield.
The Panthers also have had players step up to fill critical roles. The defense has been completely retooled. Senior Alex Daza and sophomore Blake Crutchfield, both part-timers last season, along with junior Dekotah Keough, a JV player a year ago, form a quality foundation at the back. Freshman Brennen Judy has given the team an additional weapon up front. And junior Ryan Peters has been a rock in goal.
But the biggest difference between this year's and last year's teams is attitude. The first component of that is confidence.
"They're confident in going up against any group," Pingrey said. "I watch the way they play, the way they warm up. I think last year's group maybe thought too much at times. They kind of allowed themselves to be overwhelmed. They would make adjustments, but sometimes it would take too long to make an adjustment. This team plays confident, they're sticking to what we as a staff have asked them to do, and they make adjustments a lot sooner than other teams I've had. That's huge, especially as you get into the final four, where tactics are important."
The other component is togetherness.
"It's a different team this year," Raney said. "We have a different camaraderie, we've been getting together a little more, trying to put more of an emphasis on being a team unit instead of being individual parts. So I think us being together and working more together as a team has pushed us to go further and be better than last year."
Now the Panthers have their sights set on winning the championship that eluded them last spring. However, Snohomish has a mammoth obstacle in its path in Thomas Jefferson. The Federal Way school has yet to taste defeat this season at 16-0-4, and the Raiders are considered the team to beat for the title.
"We've scouted them and they're going to be the best team we've ever played," Raney said. "If we can take them down -- they're the biggest threat -- I think the championship will be ours."
And should that happen, the trophy the Panthers thought they'd bring home last year will finally be coming back to Snohomish.
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