Five minutes before the Mountlake Terrace boys soccer team’s 2A state tournament first-round game against Tyee on May 16, Hawks coach George Dremousis had absolutely no idea who his starting goalkeeper was going to be.
Earlier that week, Mountlake Terrace lost the services of three key players, including its starting goalie, because of an administrative issue. After watching his first choice as a replacement struggle in pregame warmups, Dremousis knew he had a problem on his hands. He huddled with his assistant coaches for a quick chat.
“I said, ‘We have to figure something else out. Who’s my best athlete?’” Dremousis said. “One of my assistants says, ‘Probably Cody (Nickell).’ I said, ‘Cody, come here. Put these gloves on.’ I took three shots on him, and he held all three. I said, ‘We’re going to do it.’ Maybe it was because he didn’t really have time to think about it, but he played well.”
He certainly did — Nickell’s first-ever start in goal ended in a 7-1 Hawks victory.
“I think it’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen in all of these years that I’ve been coaching, because nine times out of 10 kids would just go out there and cave in and lose that game, but our guys rallied,” Dremousis said. “(Cody) wasn’t even in consideration for (goalkeeper) the day before. Sometimes when it works, you look good. It could’ve not worked, too.”
The senior defender’s second start in goal also produced a win, 2-1 over Highline in a state quarterfinal contest on May 20, a victory that propelled Mountlake Terrace to the 2A state semifinals. The Hawks take on East Valley (Yakima) on Friday at Sunset Chevrolet Stadium in Sumner.
Mountlake Terrace has gotten this far despite losing six players, including five starters, to injury or administrative issues in the past several weeks.
A situation like that could’ve easily buried the Hawks’ season for good, but it did the exact opposite — Mountlake Terrace has used it as a rallying cry.
“I think the team was able to do a good job of bouncing back from what happened,” Hawks defender Sam Polevoy said. “Before the Tyee game, we all said, ‘Although our spirits are down, it’s not over yet. We will go to our last dying breath.’ No matter what happens, you always have to keep on fighting and not give up. I feel this unified us, made us way closer.”
“We’re just a big family,” Nickell said. “We all have each others’ backs. We’re all super close. We wouldn’t let (something) like this tear us apart.”
Dremousis has been forced to make some changes to his team’s style of play to fit the new personnel.
“(The players that we lost) were all-league players that we worked our stuff around,” Dremousis said. “The biggest challenge for us is that we’ve had to change our philosophical approach to how we play. We’re playing a lot of long ball, which I don’t like, but it gives us the best chance of winning.
“We’re playing a 1-4-1-4 formation, and we’re just going with the philosophy that if you have five defenders in the middle of the field, you’re hard to score against. The last two games, we’ve played two of our best defensive games all year.”
Dremousis has been happy with the play of several of the Hawks’ reserves-turned-starters, including defenders Ryan Coffman and Aaron Cox, and midfielder Milkias Yonatan, who scored a goal against Highline.
“That’s the good thing about our team — we always had a deep bench, a talented bench,” Polevoy said. “(Some of our new starters) are playing close to perfect games.”
Nickell had practically no previous experience in net before the Tyee game, and was definitely surprised to be tabbed for the role. He may never fully embrace his new position, but he’s slowly becoming more comfortable.
“At first I was nervous,” Nickell said. “But I’m settling in a little bit. I’m kind of good with my hands. I don’t know a lot of things (about) the keeper position, but I try to utilize the things that I do know. I have the best defenders in Wesco in front of me, and Coach Dremousis has helped me a lot with the little things that I need to do to help me perform.
“I feel more comfortable in my other position, obviously. (But) I’m just glad I get to be a part of this. I’m glad that I can play whatever position I can to help these guys succeed.”
“I don’t think he wants to be there at all,” Dremousis said. “But the thing is, he’s not a bad keeper. He’s made some really good saves. He comes off his line with good instincts, he’s grabbing stuff, he’s going for corner kicks. He’s got good hand-eye coordination. We call him ‘The Beast’ for a reason. He’s our most fearless defender.”
Mountlake Terrace’s coaches and players have been consumed by a lot of disparate emotions during the past few weeks. They’ve dealt with victories on the pitch and losses off it. But no matter how things end up for them this weekend, they will be able to take comfort in the fact that they didn’t allow any circumstance to crush their championship dream.
“We knew pretty much from the beginning that this is our season,” Nickell said. “This is the best season that we’ve had in a long time. We’ve had some ups and downs, but I think that we didn’t really have any doubts. Even considering what happened, we knew we could persevere and do big things.
“We’re overcoming adversity, and I don’t think it’s going to stop now.”