NTL BOYS SOCCER: LEZAK EXPECTS A RETURN TO FORM FOR ATHENS IN 2021 (2021-09-04)

By TIM BIRNEY
Valley Sports Report
ATHENS — Athens was knocked off its perch atop the NTL by Wellsboro last season, but coach Jake Lezak believes the Wildcats have the talent in 2021 to regain that championship crown and make a run in Districts.

However, Lezak said there are two areas of concern for the Wildcats.

“My biggest concern, like most years, is how are we going to score consistently? And, are we going to put the  ball in the back of the net when we should, and not squander opportunities?

“We weren’t a massive scoring threat last year,” said Lezak. “That’s the biggest question mark for us coming into the season.

The other big question mark is the goalkeeper slot for us,” he noted. “(Sophomore Conner Mosher and senior Levi Kuhns) are almost equal right now … we need one of the guys to step up and show us which way we need to go.”

Lezak expected junior Grant Liechty to be the keeper this season, but he has been injured. Mosher and Kuhn are battling it out for the spot in his absence.

“We’re following two of the best goal keepers the program has had since I’ve been here, and I’d say further back than that,” he noted. “Joel Maslin and Asher (Ellis) were phenomenal goal keepers. Those are big shoes to fill..

“Whoever ends up (in the net) has big shoes to fill,” Lezak added.

Lezak has liked what he’s seen from his team in the preseason.

“I think this group is a better team … we are a little more cohesive this year,” he said. “We have a couple of guys who have a lot of talent, and some teams will look at them, but I think we have a lot of talented kids.

“I think you’re going to see different kids stepping up each game, and that makes us tough to defend.

“These guys love the sport, they work hard, and they want to get better every day,” Lezak added. “They are embracing everything we’re throwing at them in terms of the mental side of the game, and how to become a team and not just a group of great players. There’s a massive difference between the two, and we’re getting that engrained into their brain.”

Regardless of his concerns, Lezak expects his team to make a run at another District 4 title.

“My expectations are the same as in year’s past. I expect us to get the league title back, and I expect to see us in the District championship game.

“I don’t think that’s too lofty a goal for this group,” said Lezak. “I think we have the players to do it.

“It all depends on whether they come together,” he added. “It’s up to them, do they want to be a group of great players that can play together, or a group of guys who play for each other?”

Seniors Ryan Thompson and Jason Gao, and junior Tucker Brown will start along the defensive back, with sophomore Alex Campbell, and junior Caleb Hunsinger vying for time at final spot in the back.

Sophomore Jake Eyer, who is coming back from injury, will see time at center-back once he’s healthy.

Seniors Nate Quinn and Mason Hughey, junior Brayden Post, and sophomore Dash Bishop will start in the midfield. Junior Levent Van Holden missed half of the preseason and could work his way back into the mix.

“We have a flurry of guys who can also play in the midfield,” said Lezak.

Senior Daniel Horton and sophomore Korey Miller will man the forward spots. Freshman Isaac Wilcox will also see time up top.

Lezak notes that freshmen Mitch Hamilton and Troy Rosenbloom should see a great deal of time in the midfield, and possibly in the backfield.

“We also have some juniors and seniors who are going to get time,” said Lezak.

The Wildcats have been hit hard by graduation after each of the last two seasons, which will result in many new faces on the field this season.

“We’ve emptied the cupboard after the last two seasons,” said Lezak. “Experience playing together is a concern, but experience playing the game is not.

“We have experienced players. We spent a lot of time in the offseason playing through the spring. A lot of the guys played through the winter and the spring.

“We did some things that are kind of uncommon for us,” noted Lezak. “We normally don’t put a lot of pressure on them in the offseason … this year we did, because we knew the numbers we were trying to put together and piece together.

“The guys have experience, it’s just not playing together, but they’re coming along,” he added.

This year’s graduation losses were eased a bit by Athens taking in five Sayre players when the Redskin program folded due to a lack of numbers.

“It’s one hand feeding the other,” said Lezak. “The (Sayre kids) have talent … I’m glad they’ve been given the opportunity to play. They are going to help us.

“A couple of the guys with great soccer IQs and who have really played the game, we’ve moved them to different positions and they’ve settled in really well.”

“I think it’s going to bring out the best in them, and we’re going to best utilize their skill sets.

“They’re going to help us to grow,” added Lezak. “It’s also going to give some of our younger guys the time they need to develop. We were going to be in a position where we had to throw our younger guys to the wolves. Now, we will be able to get them some game time, and get them acclimated at a better pace.”

Lezak likes his teams to be battle-tested heading into the district playoffs, and this year’s non-league slate will make sure they are.

The Wildcats open the season today at the Montoursville Tournament, opening with the host Warriors, and will play either Lake Lehman or Danville later in the day. They play Midd-West and Horseheads next week, and Corning, Maine-Endwell, Williamsport, and Millville in the final three weeks of the season.

“It’s almost the non-league schedule we would have had last year,” said Lezak. “Without Sayre, we were able to add a couple of extra games … we have eight non-league games, instead of six.

“It was difficult to get everything lined up, but it’s going to help us.

“I like to be able to size us up early in the season, because it grounds the guys and let’s them know what they have to work for if they want to produce anything quality at the end of the year,” Lezak added.

AROUND THE NTL
“(Wellsboro’s) Todd (Fitch) coaches a great game,” said Lezak. “He filled in seamlessly after John (Shaffer) left, and continued to do what they had built up.

“(Wellsboro) graduated a lot of talent, but I don’t think it’s going to be a down year. They just do what we do — they reload,” he noted. “They had a talented JV squad, they are tactically sound and technically sound. They are going to be extremely competitive.

“I always feel like we’re the favorite,” continued Lezak. “The big thing of us: if we play together as a team, we’re going to be the team to beat, and that could go further than the league.

“Last season, I think every team was improved from what they had done the previous few years.

“Northeast (Bradford) brings back some talented players from a competitive group, and I expect Troy to be competitive,” said Lezak. “Liberty has good numbers, so they should be a quality team.

“Williamson’s numbers are down, but their coach does a great job. I think they could surprise some people,” added Lezak. “The big question mark will be Galeton because we did;t see them at all last season.”

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IN PHOTO: Athens senior Nate Quinn. … VSR STOCK PHOTO.