Senior leadership key to Wildcats’ success
The four senior defenders on the Fruita Monument boys soccer team — Lukas Smith, Cory Odom, Jordan Bird and Sean Kohler — move with a level of precision rare in high school soccer.
They’re very fluid, moving together as one unit instead of four, while still maintaining singular ball skills. Eager forwards have sped into the attacking third of the field only to throw their hands up in frustration when the linesman raises his flag to signal the attacker is offside.
It happens, game after game. Attackers stumped by a brutal Fruita defense.
“It’s really simple,” Odom said. “We know what to expect. We’ve been playing together for so long that we know exactly what each other is going to do.”
There was a stretch in which the Wildcats’ defense gave up two shots in three games, and they gave up a total of four goals in 10 Southwestern League matches. Fruita collected nine shutouts, tops in the SWL.
Wildcats coach Dan McKee said the collective leadership experience of having four seniors starting on defense has made producing a high-powered offense easier.
“I don’t remember which game it was, but there was a game where we drew a team offsides like 19 times,” McKee said. “We consistently reached double digits this season. That’s all on the leadership of those guys in the back. They’re able to work as a unit, and they’re good at knowing when to move guys up or back. They’ve been playing together so long, they just play really well together.
“It’s almost unheard of in this league, a unit like this. The back line is scary when they’re working together, and they’ve done really well for us this entire season.”
Thursday the veteran Wildcats, 12 seniors in all, face an Arapahoe team that is used to facing tough defenses. Fruita, seeded No. 15, will host the No. 18 Warriors at Canyon View Park at 4 p.m. Arapahoe finished in the middle of the Centennial League, the toughest league in Colorado. The Centennial League has the Nos. 1, 5, and 6 teams in the state tournament.
But the Wildcats are mentally prepared, McKee said.
“A lot of these guys played in our playoff game last year, and for some of them this is their third time in the playoffs,” McKee said. “It’s very much business as usual for us, and we’ve taken the stance that we’re going to come out and do what we do in the practices leading up to this game. We’re just preparing for Thursday and treating it like a regular-season game.”
From a player’s perspective, Smith said there’s the added incentive of playing with other seniors, many who have played together for the past eight years at various levels.
“I think there is a little bit of sadness in knowing that we’re playing our last few games as a team,” Smith said. “But we’re going to play as long as we can. It’s definitely more of a brotherhood this year, and it will difficult to see each of us go our separate ways at the end of the season.”
The biggest question mark for Fruita against Arapahoe and in a potential second-round game against No. 2 Rock Canyon or No. 31 Doherty, is the Wildcats’ midfield. The defense has been dominant, and Wesley Padgett’s 20 goals matched the Warriors’ team total this season. But if the midfield can possess and distribute the ball well, McKee said his squad can compete in the state tournament.
Three seniors headline the midfield for Fruita, including captains Noah Nelson and Kyle Breeden.
Andrew Bryceland has battled back from a knee injury to finish with six assists, putting him in a three-way tie with Nelson and Breeden as the Wildcats’ assists leaders.
Nelson is a force in the center-midfielder position for Fruita. Listed at 5-foot-10, 182 pounds, he has plowed over opponents on both sides of the ball.
“I think he likes to be hit,” McKee said. “Sometimes that’s what it takes to get him going. I know against Montrose, Vijay (Singh) hit him a couple times, and he had a smile on his face. Once you hit Noah, you can light his fire. That can be scary.”
Breeden has taken more of a finesse approach to his outside midfielder duties. He is second on the team with 10 goals and is known for flying all over the field. Breeden isn’t afraid to tackle someone deep in the defensive third, but he also will play high on the wing to serve up crossing passes.
Breeden said the majority of Fruita’s offensive success in the midfield can be attributed to chemistry.
“It’s amazing to me how well we play together, for as long as we’ve been together, compared to some of these teams that have only been together for two or three years,” Breeden said. “We just know each others’ movements and exactly where the other person is going to be. We can give them a perfect ball where we know they’re going to be.”