Lake Stevens senior Justin Harden has seen two different Vikings soccer clubs during his high school career — the 2016-17 freshman-sophomore iteration and the most recent 2018-19 junior-senior version.
Soccer talent never dissolved in central Snohomish County, but Lake Stevens soccer, which made state runs in the mid-2000s and early 2010s, lost some of its strong culture as the Vikings totaled six wins in 2016 and 2017.
“The soccer team was just kind of looked over at the school,” said Harden, who played his first varsity season as a sophomore. “The attitude on the team was lackadaisical.”
There’s a much different feel this spring. On the field and throughout the school, Lake Stevens soccer seems to be trending upward once again.
It’s a familiar feeling for second-year coach and Lake Stevens alum Wes VanHooser, who was a senior when the Vikings placed fourth in state in 2006 and went on to play at Seattle University.
“It’s funny,” VanHooser said. “When I came into Lake Stevens, playing, the team was not very successful. Over the years I was here and a long time after Lake Stevens was a powerhouse. We have a soccer community with a lot of clubs and have a good culture, but for some reason the school culture had gone away. It’s been fun trying to revive that.”
VanHooser and the Vikings took a large leap forward last season when Lake Stevens enjoyed a breakout year, winning 13 games and falling one win short of a state tournament berth.
Increased standards implemented by VanHooser, combined with a veteran group of players, proved the right mixture for success.
“Last year we brought in a lot of guys that had been in the program for a long time but hadn’t had a lot of success,” VanHooser said. “That made them hungry. First year, the biggest thing I added was a lot of rigid structure to the whole system.”
That meant player-signed contracts, holding athletes to grades better than the athletic code requires, higher attendance, more accountability and a competitive environment where players compete for playing time.
“I remember very vividly the first practice last year,” Harden said. “It was made clear we were buckling down and getting the job done. That practice was the most focused I have seen. There were no jokes coming out of anyone’s mouths. Everyone was laser-focused and after the practice, I thought, ‘Wow, we have a really good chance to do good this season.’”
Fast forward to this spring, and Harden is thrilled at his team’s potential and what the Vikings can do in Year 2 under VanHooser.
Lake Stevens brings back nine seniors, the majority of its key players from last year and its entire group of defenders. Out of the 17 players listed on the Vikings’ roster, 16 are upperclassmen.
“We lost some talent, but returning guys that have real playoff experience and played in big games makes a big difference,” VanHooser said.
Some names to watch for this season include defenseman Brody Crook, goalkeeper Andrew Polly and versatile piece Sebastian Figueroa. Crook is a Saint Martin’s University commit and a big-body anchor on the backline, Polly replaces first-team goalie JJ Smith, but is talented in his own right and VanHooser is convinced Figueroa is among the best competitors in Wesco 4A.
As for goal-scorers, expect the Vikings to distribute the wealth as they did last season.
“The funny thing is,” VanHooser said, “last year out of 18 players, 15 guys scored goals. It’s hard to pinpoint who to stop, because we don’t have two or three goal-scorers.”
Along with a diverse attack, expect Lake Stevens to score on set pieces and to rely on its stingy defense, which VanHooser said is a staple of the style of play he likes to implement. Last year, the Vikings’ 22 goals allowed ranked third in Wesco 4A and was only three less than top-ranked Mount Vernon.
Lake Stevens took the first step toward returning to prominence last season, and Harden said the Vikings have plenty of motivation to achieve a state berth this spring.
“Our graduating class for 2019, we have all grown up playing soccer together,” Harden said. “Ever since freshman year, we knew this was going to be a special year. Hopefully, we can leave all the ego stuff aside and get the job done.”