When the kick-off whistle blows at a Boys Varsity Soccer game, a quiet conviction descends upon the field. You can almost feel the starting eleven and the bench whispering under a collective/their breath(s)--”this is our year.”
Last season, the team made a deep run in CIF Division VI, ultimately losing to Monrovia on penalty kicks in the semi-finals. Although a core group of 13 players, as well as All-Area Boys Soccer Coach of the Year Alex Harrison, returned to the squad to improve upon their past success, a lot changed over the off-season.
Nine seniors from last year’s team have been replaced by three talented freshmen: Brandon Grandalski, Kai Gill, and Trevar Bambanian.
The new mix of players has led to improved camaraderie. Junior Seve Rodriguez said that “there’s a much more inclusive atmosphere and everyone gets along really well.” In fact, team bonding has been a central tenet of the coaching staff’s philosophy, according to Assistant Coach Ben Stillwell.
“Two or three months ago, the locker room was quiet, the kids weren’t clicking,” he commented. “But we’ve worked to make the team into a family.”
That initial disjunction made itself evident on the field, as the Spartans’ preseason was just about as inconsistent as imaginable--four victories, four losses, and four ties. But the team seems to have hit their stride, and is yet to drop a game after the winter break,
Stillwell thinks this can also be attributed to the increase in team and school pride he’s witnessed.
“Last year’s team had more heart, and less talent. This year’s team started off with more talent and less heart, but they’re really starting to learn who they’re playing for.”
And talent is something they have in spades. Senior and four-year Varsity starter Lawrence Ku is confident he can better his 20-goal season, especially with a soccer scholarship to Gettysburg College successfully secured. His attacking opposite is fellow senior Nathan Oh, who netted a hat-trick against South Pasadena last week and is always a threat around the box. Juniors Luke Bonham and Jack Meeker add depth and speed to the midfield and defense, respectively, and goalkeeper Mikey Selsor is one of the best in the league.
To capitalize on this embarrassment of riches, the Spartans have three different formations they play in.
“If the first half goes a certain way and we’re not pleased at half-time, we adjust. We can switch from, say, a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 and that has often helped us win the game in the second half,” explained Stillwell.
Perhaps the biggest advantage the Spartans have over their competition, though, is a tightknit cadre of seniors who first played together during recess in first grade at Paradise Canyon Elementary and have never looked back. Ku, Oh, Selsor, left fullback Jonathan Lee, defensive midfielder Ryan Herron, and rightback Bryce Badaruddin have played with each other on various AYSO, club, and school teams for nearly a decade.
As Selsor put it, that means when “the ball goes to Ryan, I almost always know what he’s going to do.” In a sport as fast-paced and fluid as soccer, that sort of intuitive knowledge is indispensable. One split-second decision can be the difference between a goal and a slide-tackle, a victory or a defeat.
Thus far in the Rio Hondo League, those split-seconds have fallen in favor of the Spartans, who have a record of 4-0-1 with wins against Temple City, San Marino, South Pasadena, and Blair, as well as a tie against Monrovia.
Now that the team is gelling like they know they can, Lee, like the rest of the team, feels hopeful they can win the league.
“I think we put ourself in a good position to win league after our preseason,” he said. “We just need to keep doing what we’re doing and we’ll go far.
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LA CANADA, PROUD AND GRAND. ALMA MATER SHALL FOREVER STAND.