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Russellville boys reload after stellar soccer debut

It has been just over a month since the Russellville boys soccer team fell to top-ranked Randolph in the AHSAA Class 5A quarterfinals, ending what was a historic season for the first-year program.

Rarely, in any sport, is a team in its debut season as talented and as fun to watch as the Golden Tigers were in 2017. Consider this: Russellville finished the season with a record of 18-5 and captured the area title. Of its five losses, just one came against an unranked opponent. And in 22 matches last season, the Golden Tigers racked up 122 goals, good for an average of 5.5 per game. Conversely, they gave up just 20 goals, making them one of the best defensive teams in the state.

“Last season ended up being better than you could have ever imagined,” said head coach Trey Stanford. “I was blessed with some of the best players I’ve ever coached. I knew we would be good, but I never imagined we would be as great as we were.

“I truly believe that team had the potential and the talent to win a championship; we just didn’t have some things go our way in the end.”

But as amazing as the 2017 season was for Stanford and his team, he did not have much time to think about what could have been. In the world of sports, even at the high school level, moving on is vital.

“Last year was a year that I’ll never forget,” Stanford said, “but now it’s time to get to work and start thinking about next season.”

And, so, go to work Stanford has. Russellville recently held tryouts and announced a new tentative roster, but as summer progresses and the 2018 season inches closer, there are still some fairly daunting challenges for the coach to tackle.

One major question to answer is this: How do the Golden Tigers replace, or attempt to replace, the 47 goals that now-alumni Jorge Bahena (11 goals) and Marvin Betancourt (36) combined to score?

“No doubt it’s going to be tough because that’s a heck of a lot of goals to account for,” Stanford said.“There are some guys that I know can play the striker position; it’s just a matter of putting guys in the position where I think they can best help us out at. That’s what this summer is about.”

Fortunately for the Golden Tigers, the loss of Betancourt and Bahena did not completely starve them of returning production. Andy Alonso, a rising senior, was second on the team last season with 30 goals and nine assists.

“Andy Alonso is a great athlete and a very hard worker,” Stanford said. “We’re definitely going to be relying on him this next season, not just because of his ability to score goals but because of the leadership he can bring, too.”

Also returning are midfielders Danny Carranza and Cedrick Mojica, who were key cogs in the offensive machine last season. Carranza and Mojica were vital to Russellville’s ability to control the ball in the middle, according to Stanford, and they are two of the better opportunity creators on the team.

Another player to look out for on the offensive end is upcoming junior Kenner Perez. Perez received a good amount of playing time last season, recording three goals from his defensive and midfield positions, but he was not a focal point of the offense. That could change in 2018.

“I’m looking at playing Kenner at striker–he wants to play striker–but I haven’t made a final decision yet,” Stanford said. “Kenner is a great athlete, he’s a good soccer player and he’s got versatility, which is what you like to have. But like I said, my priority in the summer is seeing where we can put guys to put us in a better position to win.”

The reason Stanford is reluctant to name Perez a striker is because the Golden Tigers may need him more on defense, an area which was devastated by the graduation of Andy Alverez, Kevin Salgado and Jorge Flores. In fact, replacing those three players, according to Stanford, will be even tougher than finding the missing offensive production.

“We lost some of the best defensive players I’ve ever seen,” Stanford said. “Defense is important to me already, so losing those guys really, really hurt. I may have to put Kenner in the back line. I’m not sure yet, but it’ll be a decision I’ll have to make later on.”

To help shore up the defense, Stanford says he will have to get contributions from the underclassmen coming up.

“We’re going to be young, that’s for sure,” he said. “With all of the guys we lost on the back line...yeah, you’ll definitely be seeing some freshmen and some young guys back there, because we’ll have to have them.”

Moving his experienced goalkeeper from the net to the back line may also be an option for Stanford going forward.

“Jesus [Betancourt] is a beast back there in the goal,” he said, “but we have a guy, Daniel Martinez, who is pretty talented, so if he can come in and play well for us then I might move [Betancourt] to center back. We’ll just have to see what happens with that.”

While Stanford is mulling over these decisions this summer, the players themselves will have the opportunity to show the coach why he should consider them. Russellville has already scheduled a number of summer play dates and has already played in one exhibition tournament in Florence.

Stanford said the summer games (home dates with Madison Academy on June 16, Florence on June 20 and Tanner on June 22, along with a trip to Tanner on June 24) are a good way for the new players to get to know the older players and to get some experience playing as a team.

“I think these play dates are really just a chance for a lot of these guys to get their feet wet,” he said. “Most of these guys, the freshmen coming up, have never played organized or team soccer before, so they’re in learning mode right now. And I think it’s important that they get to know who they’re playing with and get into a kind of rhythm with them.”

Much like it was in his first year, Stanford said effort and relationship-building this summer will be vital to Russellville’s success next spring.

“I think hard work and trust are two of the most important things we can focus on,” he said. “A lot of these guys have to get used to summer workouts and conditioning, because they’ve never done it before. That’ll take some time.”

“Trust is huge, too. If these guys don’t trust each other, then they won’t pass it to each other and they won’t play well together, but I think working together in the summer heat helps build that.”

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