By TIM BIRNEY
Valley Sports Report
ATHENS — Athens won its second District 4 title in three years in 2018, and returns its roster nearly in tact. Expectations are sky high for 2019, and longtime coach Jake Lezak doesn’t mind one bit.
(Athens opens the 2019 season Wednesday at home against Wellsboro.)
“We embrace it,” said Lezak. “It’s a mind-set. It comes down to: are you going to succumb to the pressure, or can meet expectations and improve on those expectations? Can we be a better team than last year?
“The guys are up for the challenge, as far as the league, too,” notes Lezak. “We embrace the challenge. We want that sixth (NTL) title in a row. The guys want to be the first team from (the NTL) to win back-to-back District 4 titles.
“We know we can do it, but we also know the teams from the southern part of the district are looking to knock us off,” he added. “I think we’ve earned a lot of respect over the years, and those teams know we’re going to bring a good game to them.”
Lezak views the experience his team returns as a major strength.
“I think our experience is our biggest strength. It’s tough to rattle these guys.
“We have guys who have played in this program, and won the program’s first District 4 title when they were freshmen, and again last year,” said Lezak. “A lot of our guys as freshman were starting in those (District 4 playoff) games; that experience has made them battle-tested.”
Among the experienced returners is a large senior class, which includes several four-year starters.
“They are a special group,” said Lezak. “It’s going to be hard to watch them go, but exciting at the same time. They have some really great futures mapped out.
“It’s bittersweet,” added Lezak. “It’s tough to lose a group you’ve worked so hard with, and you’ve been so close with over those four years, but then you look at how successful you know they’re going to be, and to watch them develop and grow as they move away from us is really neat.”
On the eve of the season opener, Lezak still wasn’t sure of his starting 11.
“We open the season tomorrow, and I still haven’t decided on two positions that we need to fill.
“Hopefully, training tonight shows me who it’s going to be long-term,” said Lezak. “I don’t want to throw a band-aid on something because we all know they come off. I want those guys in there for the long haul.”
Senior Joel Maslin will start at keeper, and junior Asher Ellis will serve as his back-up.
“(Maslin) one of the best we’ve had in the program. He can do everything,” said Lezak.
“And, I wouldn’t hesitate to put (Ellis) on the field,” noted Lezak. “Any team would love to have him in the starting line-up.”
“We have two outstanding goal keepers,” he added. “It’s an outstanding problem to have.”
David Scheftic and Matt Nowacoski will anchor the Athens defense, with senior Doug Vosburg starting on one wing. The other wing is one spot Lezak has yet to fill.
“David has started for us since his freshman year. He is a tremendous talent,” said Lezak.
“We need the three returning defenders to help that new wing back settle in, understand the position, and be comfortable — and fit.
“Just putting a player out there is not what we’re looking for right now.,” added Lezak. “We want to put a player out there that is going to fit, and we need it to be a seamless transition for the whole team.”
There are no openings in the midfield for the Wildcats.
“We return our entire midfield,” said Lezak.
Junior Benny Gambrell will start at center-defending mid, with senior Luke Arnold at center-mid, senior Jesse Sumner on the left wing, and senior Alex Rowe on the right wing.
“We all know soccer is not Benny’s number-one sport,” said Lezak. “He’s an outstanding athlete. Once he gets his touches on the ball, and gets rolling, he’ll be fine. He’s a track star. If someone outruns him, it’s going to be a long night for us.
“Luke Arnold’s ability to play the ball and put it anywhere, and keep the ball glued on his foot, is something we’ve seen for years. And, he’s better than he was last year,” noted Lezak. “I’m really excited to see what he’s going to do to the teams we have to play against.
“Sumner is just lethal coming off that wing, and he’s very versatile,” he added. ““And, (Rowe) has experience and speed. We’ve been pushing him to use his individual skill more to be a bigger presence defensively, and help us build the attack.”
That said, Lezak is looking for more from his midfield.
“We’re looking for Luke (Arnold) to step up defensively,” he said. “Along with Gambrell, we’re looking for them to force things outside, and not allow teams to turn centrally and go across the center-midfield on us.”
Senior Aaron Lane will be one of the Wildcat strikers. The other is still up in the air.
“Aaron brings back a lot,” said Lezak. “He’s very versatile, is great defensively, and when he gets the ball he is very creative. He’s fearless up front. I really think he’ll be putting a lot of goals for us this year.”
Lezak has several options for both job openings.
Junior Tyler Chambers could see time at striker or in the midfield, and sophomore Nate Quinn could play wingback or midfield, and possibly striker.
Senior Jake Corino and Colby Blakeman will both see time at wingback, while James Benninger-Jones and Carson Stanfield could see time at wingback or in the midfield, and Travis Reynard could see time at wingback or center-back.
Senior Oscar Johnson and Joey Toscano will likely see time in the midfield, and freshman Jared Ammerman could see time “anywhere on the field.”
“We are not going to lack for depth, and will be able to switch guys in and out,” Lezak noted..
Lezak lone concern, aside from staying healthy, relates to his younger players.
“We need some of our younger guys to step up more than what they have,” he said. “We’ve really worked on building the strength in the younger ranks.
“I think the biggest thing is if we have some long-term injuries during the course of the season, and we need some of those younger guys to step in and fill those positions, how would they respond?
“Some of the younger guys have stepped, and we’re still waiting on some of them,” added Lezak.
ON THE NON-LEAGUE SLATE
“I’m really excited about our non-league schedule.
“We picked up Trumansburg,” said Lezak. “They are a smaller school, but they won a Section IV title last year, and that’s the caliber of team we wanted to play.
“Corning brings almost everyone back, and is a very well-coached team and a very solid program,” continued Lezak. “Elmira has a good team returning, with their top striker back.
“Maine-Endwell and Ithaca are both good programs — both consistently in the Section IV playoffs.
“I don’t mean to speak poorly off our league, but with this caliber of team and what we bring back, I needed a non-league schedule that was going to be challenging,” added Lezak.
AROUND THE NTL
“We know Wellsboro is going to be our main challenger,” said Lezak. “They have a solid program, and have done a lot of great things. They’ve always been tough on us.
“I know Williamson has a solid program, and I know (North Penn) Liberty brings back a lot.
“A lot of teams lost a lot from last year,” added Lezak. “It’s tough because we bring nearly everyone back. You hate to be over-confident, but at the same time we know numbers are down for a lot of programs that use to have great histories, and great histories against us.”
ON DISTRICT 4, CLASS AAA
“You look at the talent Selinsgrove brings back, their roster just moves up a notch. We know they’re going to be solid,” said Lezak. “Mifflinburg is always talented, and is always in the hunt.
“Jersey Shore was injury-ridden last year,” he added. “They also had a lot of young guys, so we’re expecting them to be much better this year.”
IN PHOTO: Athens seniors Luke Arnold (left) and Jesse Sumner.
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