NTL BOYS SOCCER: WILDCATS READY TO OVERCOME HUGE GRADUATION LOSSES IN 2020 (14 PHOTOS) (2020-09-15)
By TIM BIRNEY
Valley Sports Report
ATHENS — All high school programs deal with graduation losses on a yearly basis — it’s the nature of the beast, but Athens boys soccer coach Jake Lezak has been dealing with the loss of 12 seniors, including several four-year starters, in preparation for the 2020 season.
“We lost a lot to graduation,” said Lezak. “Out of the 12, we had five who lettered all four years, and three of them started in the state playoff game as freshmen.
“It’s tough with that many players in a senior class to give them the time they’ve earned, and still groom the younger players and have them ready to play,” he noted. “These guys have taken advantage of opportunities to play in the offseason, and that’s really helped them grow.”
Lezak notes the 2020 Wildcats have really come together in the preseason.
“Early on I was a little worried about their ability to blend together, and be a cohesive unit. Now, I think that is actually a strength for them.
“One of the best things for this team is there is no ego on the field,” said Lezak. “There’s no ego as soccer players, it’s not about ‘me’ with any of them. I think that’s really important.
“The guys don’t hesitate to set up their teammates to go forward.
“And, the work ethic has been very high,” added Lezak. “They’ve embraced the challenge this year.”
Lezak believes his team’s defense will be a strength it can rely on early in the season as the offense finds its groove.
“We were heavy on defenders last season, so we were able to get a lot of guys experience,” he said. “We bring back three seniors who have plenty of experience back there.”
Senior Landon Lantz, who missed all of last year with a knee injury, will be at center-back, with seniors Travis Reynard and Colby Blakeman at wingback.
Senior Asher Ellis will shift from striker back to normal position as keeper.
“(Asher Ellis) was our back-up last year, but he could have been a starter,” said Lezak. “He’s a phenomenal athlete … I expect him to really solidify the net for us.”
Back-up keeper sophomore Grant Liechty is currently injured, so freshman Ben Menard and junior Levi Kuhns are in line-up for back-up keeper duties.
Senior Benny Gambrell will anchor the midfield for the Wildcats.
“Benny Gambrell is looking phenomenal right now.,” said Lezak. “His confidence, his touch, everything is fantastic. We’re really going to depend on him a lot.”
Senior James Benninger-Jones and sophomore Levent Van Holden will start at outside-miss, with junior Ryan Thompson, Kuhns, senior Griffin Stein and juniors Jason Gao and Daniel Horton also vying for time there.
Senior Tyler Chambers is set at the attacking center-mid, with junior Nate Quinn, sophomore Jared Ammerman, and senior Joey Toscano getting time at striker. Freshman Ryan LaSusa could also see time at striker.
Lezak said his team’s performance in the preseason has eased his concerns about their lack of experience.
“There are still some question marks,” he said. “I’m not as concerned as I was two weeks ago, the players have been pushed very hard.
“We’ve simplified their roles on the field to help them understand it,” added Lezak. “And, we’ve changed our formation completely at the back, playing to the strength of the guys we have coming back.”
Depth, however, is a concern for the veteran coach.
“Honestly, I think our depth is my biggest concern.
“We have 29 on the roster, but some of the younger guys may get a ‘time to grow up lesson,’” said Lezak. “There are a few positions, like goal keeper, that if we lose for an extended period of time, it could get pretty scary for us.”
Like many coaches, Lezak has faced the challenge of preparing for a season that features less matches than normal, and may not have a postseason.
“It’s tough. It’s changed the way I’ve coached this preseason,” said Lezak. “I’ve had to bring back some old-school things from my early years.
“You find way to motivate the players you have in training. You find what kind of sparks and ignites that in training — that’s what makes it fun to coach.
“Some of this group lost their spring seasons,” noted Lezak. “They were baseball players or on the track team, and they faced the idea of losing this season, so I think the sheer fact we’re training day-to-day and week-to-week right now without knowing if and when we may be shut down has helped.
“This could literally be their last training session, and I think that’s really motivated them,” added Lezak.
AROUND THE NTL: The Wildcats have won six NTL titles in a row,.
“I think Troy could be a surprise in the East, but I think the main challengers will come out of the West,” said Lezak.
“Wellsboro should be up on top. I think they only had three seniors, so they didn’t lose much,” he noted. “They bring back speed on the wing, and up front.
“I think Williamson will be good.,” added Lezak. “They return a lot of their top players, and their coach is doing the right things.”
IN PHOTO 1: Athens senior Benny Gambrell. … PHOTOS BY DAVID ALLIGER — TRAVELING PORTRAITS.