CHAPEL HILL — Relentlessly upbeat, East Chapel Hill’s young soccer team sees its inexperience as an opportunity, not a problem.
“I’m excited about how much young potential we have,” head coach Austin Collins said last week.
The Wildcats have finished at the top of the table twice in two years – winning the PAC-6 championship outright for the first time last season. Collins thinks there’s a lesson for this year’s team in how the 2011 Wildcats got going.
Two years ago, East Chapel Hill was hit hard by graduation from a 2010 team that went 16-3-2. The 2011 Wildcats lost their first six games – including two against 3A Chapel Hill and one against 2A Carrboro – but then won 11 straight at the end of the season. A dramatic 1-0 win over a veteran Jordan team moved East Chapel Hill into a tie for first in the PAC-6 with the Falcons.
Last year, East Chapel Hill went 1-0-1 against Jordan, beating out the Falcons for the PAC-6 championship. It was the first conference title for East Chapel Hill, which previously had dominated the 3A Five-County Conference, since moving up to the 4A classification. The 2012 Wildcats went on to reach the fourth round of the state playoffs, they farthest they’d ever advanced in the NCHSAA 4A tournament.
This year’s Wildcats, like the 2011 team, have only a handful of returning players.
“Our younger players should learn that these guys were in a similar situation two years ago,” Collins said. “That team had lost a huge senior class. But they showed it’s possible to take a fresh team and make a new start and finish the best you can.”
East Chapel Hill’s 17-2-2 team of 2012 graduated not just a large class, but a talented one last spring.
The defense was hit especially hard, Collins noted, with the graduation of players like all-state midfielder-defender Victor Zhang, two-time all-conference defender Matt Gerrish, defender Luka Vujaskovic and both goalkeepers – Jake Hilkey and Matt Cocca – who split time in the net. They helped East hold opponents to 17 goals last year – five of them coming in blowouts where East pulled its starters early.
“Defense has always been where we start from. Now we’ll be rebuilding that,” Collins said.
East, which scored 67 goals last season, also lost some players off its front line with the gradation of Louis Levin and Santiago Betancourt. But the Wildcats still retain some offensive punch.
Seniors Michael Balog and Zachary Lee, two attacking midfielders who figured prominently in East’s playoff run last year, head up the list of returning Wildcats. Junior Michael Krantz, the first player off the bench most of last season, is also expected to return pending a doctor’s clearance; Krantz hurt his Achilles tendon in the off-season but is nearing a return, Collins hoped.
“I think we’ll be okay,” Collins said. “We’ll be young and we’ll make some mistakes, but we’ll learn from them.
“The thing I really want these young players to remember the lessons from the two previous seasons. We’d like to avoid that drop-off we had at the start of two years ago with the six losses at the start. We should start better than that and build from there.”