Super sophomores rising to occasion for playoff-hopeful Fruita Monument
As a freshman last year, Fruita Monument High School soccer player Lukas Smith watched the Wildcats’ defensive line help propel Fruita to the Class 5A playoffs.
He knew it wouldn’t be long before the quartet of seniors, Alex Woomer, Schuyler Young, Shyler Sackett and Mitchell Van-Ackeren, graduated.
That put the pressure on Smith and his fellow freshmen to take over as sophomores this fall.
“We came in as freshmen and realized all the senior defenders were pretty much leaving, that we had to get it together then to prepare ourselves for this season,” Smith said. “It made us more calm and collected, better prepared, more focused on what we had to do.”
Only one year later, the Wildcats are nearing a second straight Class 5A playoff berth despite starting five sophomores.
“We’re playing rosters that have more seniors than we have,” said Fruita coach Dan McKee. “Our sophomores have risen to that occasion and they know how to play.”
Smith starts on the back line with fellow sophomores Jordan Bird and Cory Odom as part of a 3-2-3-2 formation. Noah Nelson plays in front of them and Kyle Breeden starts in the midfield. Both are sophomores.
Midfielder Andrew Bryceland and forward Wesley Padgett get significant time off the bench.
The play of the sophomores, along with an experienced offense and play of goalie Scott Mende, has helped the Wildcats overcome a 1-5 start. Since beating Grand Junction 2-1 on Sept. 13, Fruita has gone 6-2.
As the Wildcats worked to find their identity in nonleague play, they faced a bevy of Denver Post top ranked teams, including Adams City, currently No. 9 in Class 5A followed by a game against Heritage, which was No. 9 when the season began.
In those games, Fruita was outscored 10-1.
McKee said it was a growing pain he hoped the ‘Cats had overcome in the offseason, although conflicting schedules hampered that. Instead, it was trial by tribulation.
After a 1-0 loss to Central, the Wildcats traveled to Colorado Springs for the Air Academy Invitational.
In a 4-0 loss to Frontier Academy, the team lost senior forward Alec Smith for the season to injury. Fruita finished the weekend 1-2, including a loss to Air Academy, the top-ranked 4A team in the state.
“It was a bit frustrating,” Lukas Smith said. “It felt like we were trying really hard and it just wasn’t coming but we kept at it, kept trying, and it eventually came. We eventually won and got our (confidence) back.”
Nelson said although it was rough, it paved the way to their current success.
“It was kind of demoralizing,” he said. “We hadn’t really played together as a team that much, but those games were crucial to getting us to work as a team finally.”
When the Wildcats beat rival Grand Junction 2-1 in overtime Sept. 13, it got the ball rolling.
“They started seeing that ‘I have to step it up to make this team work,’ ” McKee said. “I think they all took control of that position that was assigned to them and they’ve grown with that.”
Because of the sophomores’ defensive efforts and Mende’s play in goal, the Wildcats allowed no more than two goals in any game between Sept. 10 and Saturday’s 4-1 loss in Durango.
McKee credited the success to perseverance after the Wildcats’ 1-0 win Sept. 23 over Durango.
“The deck kept getting stacked against us and they just kept coming out,” McKee said. “They’re like ‘OK, we can hang with these guys.’ All of a sudden we can hang with Montrose and I think that confidence we had from playing Montrose, even though we lost, carried over to that Durango game and I think that’s what got us the win.”
Smith said their evolution has been helped by upperclassmen, who have provided help including one-on-one advice.
“(They’ll say) ‘I noticed you’re doing this wrong, here’s something you could try,’ ‘’ Smith said. “And you know what? I don’t think there’s one time that hasn’t worked, where one of their suggestions haven’t helped us.”
And depending on how the rest of the season plays out, the confidence and growth might take them to the playoffs.
Which 5A team makes it will depend on the final SWL standings, including the 4A schools.
After the Wildcats’ 4-1 loss Saturday in Durango, the Wildcats are 6-3 in league with today’s game remaining against Montrose. Central is 4-4 with games remaining against Junction and Montrose.
Fruita needs a win or a Central loss to clinch.
McKee has tried to avoid the topic of playoffs with his team, but it’s something the sophomores would be OK with.
“That would be amazing to go there,” Smith said. “As long as we don’t get ahead of ourselves, focus on the games we have right now, I think we could get there.”