At the start of this season, Richard Huxford heard both sides of what he was getting into.
He knew that he was taking over a tradition-rich boys’ soccer program that had just won the 4A state championship the year before. But he also knew that a new rule by U.S. Soccer – aimed at developing talent at the academy level, which includes CASL teams – would prohibit some of his would-be best players from playing for their high school.
So Huxford, a former assistant with the Carolina RailHawks, began his first year with his team breaking in all 11 new starters. Only four of the players were on last year’s team, and one played regularly.
After the first day of practice, he felt confident in what he saw.
“But I didn’t tell them that,” he says now.
Green Hope is poised for an unlikely repeat. The Falcons are playing Charlotte Myers Park, the same team they beat last year 2-1 in overtime with a wild finish – but it’s hard to call Green Hope the same team it was a year ago.
Last year’s team had college-bound players coming off the bench and ESPN’s national coach of the year, Andrew Chadwick, on the sideline.
Yet despite the changes, this year’s all-new team didn’t miss a beat. The Falcons won their first 14 games of 2012, running an overall win streak to 24, and have outscored their playoff opponents 11-4.
Starting from scratch
Green Hope was already graduating 13 players from last year.
Six players were caught in the new U.S. Soccer Development Academy rule – including UNC-Wilmington commit Kellen Foster, Appalachian State commit Tommy Labriola and Evan Krause, a junior committed to North Carolina.
Another, Ryan Thompson, graduated a full year early to enroll and play at Duke.
The Falcons’ four returning players – Tyler Hawley (who played some off the bench), Sam Bissett, Josh Kennedy and Jason Tew – knew the perception was that their team was going to take a giant step back.
“We had to just get the expectations off our shoulders because we couldn’t worry about last year’s team,” Kennedy said. “We’re still Green Hope, and we want to be the best we can be.”
Huxford brought new strength and conditioning drills to the team, and found the group had great cohesion.
Fifteen of the players, including Sam Rauf, are juniors who have played together since middle school.
“We’ve been trying to prove everybody wrong. It’s been our motivation,” Rauf said. “I felt confident in what we could do, I just had no clue what other teams’ levels were.”
The 2-1 score from last year’s title game, hosted at night at WakeMed Soccer Park, doesn’t begin to describe how thrilling the championship game was.
Myers Park led after a free kick in the 37th minute and took the 1-0 lead into halftime. In the 55th, Green Hope equalized off a corner kick.
After the first overtime, Green Hope’s Rodrigo Ortiz scored early in the second overtime period. Myers Park, desperate to extend the game into a five-minute “golden goal” overtime, almost scored the tying goal on a bicycle kick.
The ball hit the right post and went in, but time expired while the ball was in midair. No goal. Green Hope won the first soccer championship in school history.
“Just to go through it was crazy,” Rauf said. “To be on the field again, and go through the same thing, you can’t describe it.”
Myers Park, making its third straight appearance in the title game, wants revenge. The Mustangs are 67-8-1 in the past three seasons but haven’t gotten a state title. Green Hope is 61-9-1 in the same time period and 48-3 in the past two years.
Chadwick, who liked to mix other sports in his metaphors, said often during last year’s season that his team “didn’t have Shaquille O’Neal playing point guard.” In other words, every player on his team was playing their natural position – not a given in high school soccer when a team may have an imbalanced roster.
That made roles easy to identify on last year’s team, and everyone played them in perfect harmony.
You could say the same for this year’s team.
Owen Jeffs has replaced Foster as a standout defensive midfielder.
Thompson’s powerful throw-ins are now being taken by MacLean Holbrook, and his corner kicks have been handed down to Kalvin Kromer.
Hawley and Rauf lead the central defense, which was strong last year. And just like last year, the Falcons don’t have one main goal-scorer, but multiple forwards who score evenly.
And now it comes down to one last game. The Falcons are positioned to cap off a repeat no one saw coming.
“Going back, I really feel like this is my year, and the rest of the seniors’,” Kennedy said. “I feel we deserved it this year. We earned it.”
Blake: 919-460-2606 or twitter.com/JMBpreps