By Aaron Swaney Herald Writer
EVERETT — Seven games into his first season as Cascade High School’s boys soccer coach, Samuel Croft was at a crisis point.
His team was 1-5-1 and had just lost to Snohomish 4-0. As Croft left the pitch, he was grasping for answers. Having been around a number of elite programs as an assistant coach over the years, he knew his team had talent and had no business getting embarrassed like they were that night.
So he called a summit with his three captains — Nathan Jenkins, Jake Pittsenbarger and Marcos Lujan — and had a heart-to-heart.
“We lost 4-to-nothing to Snohomish and it turned out to be a good thing,” Croft said. “It brought up a lot of things. I sat down with my captains and had to refocus them. And now that they’re refocused, I feel like the team has refocused.”
Refocused is an understatement. Since that loss to Snohomish, Cascade has reeled off six consecutive wins and catapulted to second place behind Kamiak in the Wesco 4A South. Cascade travels to face Kamiak at 7:30 tonight in a battle between the division’s top two teams.
“They want to win this game big time,” Croft said of tonight’s showdown with Kamiak. “They want the league title and I think it’s within our reach. We’re going to go up against a very tough team. (Kamiak head coach) Kosta (Pitharoulis) has done a fantastic job there. It will be a lot of fun.”
Following the loss to Snohomish, Cascade traveled to Lake Stevens to take on a strong Wesco 4A North opponent. Jenkins, a senior who was 0-3 against Lake Stevens in his high school career, and his teammates weren’t the most confident group going into the game.
“We went in thinking we probably weren’t going to win that game,” Jenkins admitted. “But we go up 1-0 and we think ‘Hey, we’ve got a chance to win this. We can stick with these guys.’”
Cascade scored again in the second half and goalkeeper Scott Pease finished off the shutout to lead the Bruins over the Vikings 2-0. Cascade then beat Mount Vernon, Monroe and Arlington to finish 4-1-0 against the Wesco 4A North and set up a showdown with Mariner, which had defeated Cascade 3-2 in the two teams’ first match on March 18.
“Every time we’ve beaten somebody it has just built our confidence,” Jenkins said.
In the game against Mariner, the defending 4A South champ, Cascade got a goal from Samuel Agyei in the 43rd minute to go up 1-0. And like the victory over Lake Stevens, the Bruins leaned on Pease in the second half to keep the Marauders off the scoreboard. It was his fourth shutout for the season and third during the streak.
“I got to give (Scott) props in that Mariner game, it wasn’t only our defense,” said Lujan, a senior midfielder. “Scott helped us out a lot in that one.”
Part of the reason for Cascade’s resurgence has been the play of Agyei. The Bruins’ sophomore striker, who missed the first three games of the season because he hadn’t practiced enough, has scored four goals and assisted on two others as Cascade has outscored opponents 13-4 during the win streak. Agyei leads the team with six goals for the season.
“Samuel Agyei has been an unbelievable striker for us,” Croft said. “He is one of those guys who can dominate up front.”
While the offense has been good, the Bruins’ defense has been sparkling since giving up four goals to Snohomish. Led by Lujan and junior midfielder Pittsenbarger, the Bruins create what they call “The Box” on the back end of their defense and dare teams to enter. Lujan and Pittsenbarger play the top corners of the box, with defenders Spencer Bowlden and Nazar Yaychenya on the bottom.
“We make them play around the box and make them not want to bring the ball in,” Pittsenbarger said.
After serving as assistant coach under Mike Bartley at both Jackson and Archbishop Murphy, Croft moved back to Jackson to coach the girls with coach Jesslyn Kellerman this past fall. This winter he accepted his first head coaching position when the Bruins’ boys job opened up following Jamie Gay’s resignation.
“I’ve been taught so well by so many different coaches,” Croft said. “I love the fact that it’s my program and I can take everything that I’ve learned and combine it into a melting pot I can call ‘my program’”
Not only has Croft borrowed from the likes of Bartley and Kellerman, but he’s used some of the coaching techniques of Cascade football head coach Joe Cronin. Croft, whose son Chase plays for Cronin on the Bruins’ football team, has stressed family and created an inclusive atmosphere around the Bruins’ soccer team.
“The biggest difference is the family mentality,” said Jenkins, who has scored three goals and assisted on two this season.
“Before we started we sat down and talked about what we could improve upon this year. We talked about the attitude we had toward one another was the biggest thing. We felt it was better to be more positive with each other. We wanted everyone to feel like they’re part of a family.”
The Bruins’ new-found mettle was put the test on Tuesday in a game against Lynnwood. Cascade fell behind 1-0, but a goal by Jenkins soon after halftime and the game-winner by Jorge Heredia a few minutes later gave Cascade its seventh win of the season, surpassing the number of wins the team has had in the past two seasons.
“We fell behind 1-0 (against Lynnwood) and there was no quit,” Croft said. “I never saw it in their eyes, there was no question. If you had talked to me 10 games ago it would have been totally different.”