By Aaron Swaney Herald Writer
In high school sports the graduation of a dozen seniors can leave the next year’s team in a bad spot. In need of leadership and experience, often those teams struggle early in the season until they find an identity and a new set of leaders.
But the loss of a large set of seniors can also give a team the ability to reinvent itself.
Consider the Stanwood boys soccer team Exhibit A in the latter’s case. After graduating 12 seniors off of a team that struggled to win games in 2012, the Spartans not only got off to a great start this season but won their first league title since 2001. It all came down to a collection of players who were given a chance and were invested in winning.
“One of the best things that happened was graduating those seniors,” said Stanwood head coach Kyle Veach. “They knew how to lose and were pretty good at it. They were great kids and great players, don’t get me wrong, but they saw it. A number of them have come back to games (this year) and said ‘You were right. We wish we could have done this.’”
The large number of seniors meant that only a handful of underclassmen got to even make varsity. The rest played on junior varsity and got experience winning. That has carried over to this year and was evident right away as Stanwood won five of its first seven games and didn’t suffer its first loss until nearly a month into the season.
“We told the guys on JV (last year) that you will start varsity next year and this is good for you,” Veach said. “It was talked about last season that these JV kids will come through, start and not miss a beat. We had five or six of them who were dominant on JV last year who just didn’t have a spot on varsity.”
Upperclassmen Logan Flem and Chase Lauinger are essentially the bridge between the two different teams. Both are captains on this year’s team and important facets of a defense that has limited teams to just 15 goals in 14 games and recorded five shutouts this season. In comparison, Stanwood allowed 56 goals a year ago.
“We’ve been able to grind out wins this season,” said Flem, who could play a number of positions on the field but chose to help out where the team needed him most by playing center-back and being a leader on defense. “We’re not two separate groups like last year but rather one big group.”
The Stanwood players could have been forgiven if they’d waved the white flag shortly after the season kicked off. Returning starter and goalkeeper Riley Martin went down with a serious knee injury eight minutes into the season opener against Arlington, forcing an already young team to turn to a freshman keeper. But the defense rallied around fill-in goalkeeper Jordan Schafer and made it an imperative to limit other teams’ shots.
“We became much more vicious on defense,” said Lauinger, who was on the other end of the collision that knocked out Martin (My first thought was ‘What have I done, Lauinger joked), “Logan wins anything in the air and I’m there to clean it up.”
Flem agreed that the defense seemed to take it upon itself to limit shots and in a way protect Schafer as he acclimated to being the varsity starter.
“With a goalie that we’ve only played with this year rather a year or more we probably try to give him as little amount of shots to save as possible,” Flem said.
Stanwood may be led by its defense but its offense has been a suprisingly strong unit as well this season. Led by breakout star forward Colin Cuchna, the Spartans scored four goals in the season opener and have done a good job of getting the ball in the net. The attack begins with Cuchna, a quirky sophomore who has blossomed after having a rocky freshman season in which he scored just one goal.
“Last year I was just new to it all. I was the freshman,” Cuchna said. “These guys respect me and they play me the ball. They trust me. It gives me a bigger boost of confidence.”
Cuchna has finished on the opportunities he’s had this year, scoring five goals and assisting on four others. Veach said it’s more of a mental thing with Cuchna than anything else.
“He created a lot of opportunities as a freshman but didn’t finish,” Veach said. “Mentally he’s come in as a stronger game player than he did last year. You knew he was on the cusp of doing something great. He scores ridiculous goals, impossible angles.”
Cuchna’s added confidence has brought out his quirkier side. One teammate describes him as the team’s “goofball.” On an already fun-loving team, Cuchna brings it to another level. Whether it’s sporting pink shirts and short shorts at a recent practice or his trademark flame-emblazoned game socks, Cuchna is the ringleader of a team that knows how to laugh.
“They’re characters,” Veach said. “Serious, yelling, hard-nosed coaching doesn’t work with them. Allowing them to be their characters and have fun and enjoy the game as much as possible allows me to get the best out of them.
“They enjoy this game so much,” Veach continued. “Colin is one of the top players in the league and there isn’t a serious bone in his body. They play this game because it’s fun.”
From time to time Flem said he’s been called upon to help the team re-focus and get serious, but overall it’s a group that knows when to turn it on. Veach echoed that, pointing out a situation after a recent loss.
“They were already huddled up in the corner talking about the talking points I was going to go over,” Veach said.
Stanwood’s win over Oak Harbor on Friday night locked up the Spartans first league title in over a decade and its win over Marysville Pilchuck on Monday gave them 33 points to break the school’s previous record for points in a season (31). But ultimately Veach said his team’s goal is a district title and that means beating the Wesco 3A South teams. Stanwood went 7-0-1 against the North’s best, including a tie with 4A power Lake Stevens, but was 2-3 against the 3A South, with losses against Shorecrest, Shorewood and Glacier Peak by a combined score of 7-1.
“I think playing the South was a little bit of a reality check but it gives us an idea of what we need to work on,” Flem said.
No matter how they do at districts, which starts Saturday, Stanwood boys soccer has come a long way.
“When we set that down (winning a district title) as a goal it was as an expectation not as a far-off goal,” Veach said. “Even though we’ve been successful through it all we’ve changed things up to try and get better. We haven’t peaked yet.”