The Everett Community College men’s soccer team huddles together before the start of a game against Whatcom on Oct. 23 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The Everett Community College men’s soccer team huddles together before the start of a game against Whatcom on Oct. 23 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Everett CC men’s soccer team set to begin playoff drive

Led by a host of former Wesco stars, the Trojans begin the NWAC Championship believing they have the pieces to bring home a title

There are two facts about the Everett Community College men’s soccer team that seem contradictory, but both are true:

1) This may be the best team ever assembled in school history.

2) The Trojans came a whisker away from not even qualifying for the postseason.

Everett opens the NWAC Championship at 3 p.m. Wednesday when the Trojans travel to play Tacoma in a regional playoff contest. And even though Everett heads into the tournament as the No. 3 seed from the North Region, the Trojans’ aims are loftier than their seed suggests.

“I believe this is the best chance Everett has ever had to win a championship,” Trojans coach Kieren Raney said. “I feel confident we have the pieces and players to do it.”

Everett has never been a men’s soccer power. Since beginning play in 1976 the Trojans have made the postseason just 11 times, and the best NWAC placing in school history was third in 1983 and 1989.

But this has been a special season for Everett. The Trojans, who are comprised almost exclusively of former Wesco players, finished the regular season with an 11-3-4 record, their best since 1980 when Everett claimed its only region title. The Trojans are ranked No. 4 in the latest NWAC coaches poll, and at one point Everett even cracked the Junior College Division II national poll.

Everett has been led by sophomore forward River Stewart, a Meadowdale High School graduate who leads NWAC in goals with 24 in 18 games. Freshman midfielder Emmanuel Escalante, an Arlington High School grad, is tied for the NWAC lead in assists with 12. And freshman goaltender Avary Olson, another Meadowdale alum, has been spectacular in goal. Multiple players from Mariner, Snohomish and Jackson high schools have also been important contributors.

“I love it,” Stewart said about playing on what’s essentially a Wesco all-star team. “A lot of the guys are ones I’ve known and played with, and we already had that chemistry and friendship before playing on this team. I think part of our success is because of that overall friendship, we’re more than just teammates.”

The key moment for the Trojans came on Sept. 3. In just its second North Region game of the season Everett upset Peninsula, winner of five of the past 11 NWAC championships, 4-2 at Everett Memorial Stadium as Mariner grad Muhammed Darboe found the net twice. That result let the Trojans know they were legitimate.

”That was the catalyst for the success we had all season,” Raney said. “Going into that match I remember the narrative was that no one expects anything from us, so let’s make it a challenge for them. I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of effort my team put in. That success I think really caused the team to believe something special could be happening this year.”

The challenge for Everett was the North Region was historically strong this season. Peninsula is arguably NWAC’s best program. Whatcom is also in the conversation, having finished as NWAC runner-up three of the past four tournaments. With Skagit Valley, like Everett, also having a breakout campaign, North Region teams occupy four of the top five spots in the latest coaches poll. But only three teams from each region advance to the tournament.

Therefore, Everett entered its final two games with its postseason fate hanging in the balance. The Trojans hosted Skagit Valley last Wednesday with the teams tied for third, meaning the result likely determined which team advanced to the tournament. The tiebreaker and schedule situations meant Everett probably only needed a draw to claim third. In an intense encounter at Lincoln Field, Stewart fired the Trojans ahead in the 24th minute. Skagit answered four minutes later, but Everett was able to withstand the Cardinal onslaught the rest of the way as the game finished 1-1. The Trojans clinched third three days later by beating Pierce, winless in region play, 3-1 in their season finale.

“We were playing our third game in six days, we were exhausted and injured, and it definitely showed,” Raney said about the game against Skagit Valley. “Our game plan was always to come out and get an early goal and see if we could sit back. We scored early, but like we expected Skagit adjusted and threw everything at us. They had multiple shots and Avary came up big. If any individual moment had gone different it would have been Skagit going through.”

So Everett enters the tournament as anything but a typical No. 3 seed. The Trojans first face West No. 2 Tacoma, with the winner advancing to face South No. 1 Lane on Saturday for a shot at the final four. Although Everett is the lower seed, the Trojans won’t be an underdog. And should it come down to a showdown with Peninsula and Whatcom, the Trojans held their own against those two, going 1-1-2 in head-to-head games.

“I think our chances are great,” Stewart said. “If we play the style we’ve been practicing all season and stick to our roots, I think we have a really good chance this year. We have a great amount of talent on this team at pretty much every position, so I’m exited to see what we’re capable of.”

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