Even with a significant number of players graduated from last year’s conference champions and a new head coach for the first time in 35 years, Chapel Hill figures it’ll be right back in the mix when the 2014 soccer season gets underway.
“We’ll be right there again,” first-year head coach Jason Curtis said during last week’s Chapel Hill Soccer Camp.
“I’m very excited to get started. We have a great group of kids this year, and they’re all very coachable.”
Curtis, who joined the staff of veteran Chapel Hill coach Ron Benson in 1999, took over the program shortly after Benson retired in June after 34 seasons. The way he sees it, there’s not much reason to change much of anything.
Chapel Hill, which won 65 percent of its games under Benson, finished 24-2-1 and won the Big Eight championship last year.
“Right now, my job is to just keep it rolling,” Curtis said. “Benson always said: ‘Whatever it is, pass it on to the assistants and let them work on it.’ And I have the same assistants he did.”
Chapel Hill graduated a large number of seniors off last year’s champions, including all-conference players Luke Ciocca, (defender), Nate Hebert, (forward) and Chandler Weedon (defender) and goalkeeper of the year Justus Heizer.
Perhaps most significantly, the 2014 Tigers also will be without National Soccer Coaches Association all-American Ben Fisher, a senior who’s already committed to UNC Wilmington. Fisher was the Big Eight Conference’s 2013 Player of the Year after scoring 16 goals and leading the area with 20 assists.
Fisher is eschewing varsity play and opting to play solely with his club team this fall.
“That means no high school soccer,” Curtis said, but there’s no hard feelings, either from Curtis or Fisher’s classmates. “He doesn’t owe us anything. Besides, he’s been with us at camp and helps out with the kids and hangs out with the guys.”
Fisher’s absence in the midfield, where he helped Chapel Hill maintain possession even against the most aggressive opponents, complicates Chapel Hill’s task of needing to rebuild its defense. Four of the top five defenders from last year’s team are graduated.
Still, Curtis figures that Chapel Hill, one of the first high schools in the state to embrace soccer before it was a sanctioned NCHSAA sport, has too much talent to be left empty handed.
“I don’t want to make it sound like we don’t have anyone coming back,” Curtis said. “We lost a lot, but we have quite a few people returning. I don’t want to sell those kids short.”
Chapel Hill expects back nine lettermen —six of them seniors — who made significant contributions last season. Top seniors back for 2014 include: Kyle Cocowitch (midfield), Daniel Ferreira (forward), Daniel Henao (midfield) Hugh Kelly (goalkeeper) Mateo Ortiz (midfield/forward) and Will Sharpless (defender).
Juniors John Walden (midfield) and Jacob Owens (forward) also got considerable playing time last year.
“We had a lot of junior varsity players, too, last year who would have been on the varsity if we hadn’t had so many seniors,” Curtis said. “We expect big contributions from them as well.”
Curtis coached alongside assistant soccer coaches Davis Boyle, Kevin Schoden and Manny Kratzaat in last spring’s NCHSAA championships, and he thinks Chapel Hill’s title in girls’ soccer might even add a bit of motivation to his boys’ team.
“All the players — girls and boys — are friends, so winning it helps everyone feel better,” he said. “There was some joking over the summer. Like ‘Well at least we won ours. You didn’t.’ But it was all good-natured.
“They even scrimmaged each other. I had to ask if there were going to be any problems with that, but they all enjoyed it.”
The Tigers are motivated by the belief that they could have gone farther in last fall’s playoffs than the quarterfinals, where they were upset by Jacksonville.
“Last year’s team was our best boys’ team in years — very deep, very talented,” Curtis said. “We really shouldn’t have lost to Jacksonville.”