By Bret McCormick
The crack-of-dawn training sessions have paid off for Northwestern's boys' soccer program... so far. The Trojans open the Class AAAA soccer postseason Tuesday at home against rival Rock Hill, beginning a march toward a state title they've discussed on many a groggy morning.
It's tough, said Northwestern senior defender Patrick Raad, one of just three seniors on the team. This is a new thing we're doing in the mornings, usually three days a week on non-game days. We come in early, we stay fit, we lift weights, we keep up our fitness levels so we don't drop down and are mentally strong and prepared for each game.
Raad said he felt he and his teammates were fitter and stronger than last year as they embark on this seasons playoff journey. Northwestern (18-1-1, 14-0 Region 3) coach Dom Wren certainly hopes that's the case as the Trojans host their scrappy crosstown rivals, the Bearcats (9-10, 6-8 Region 3), in the opening round. Northwestern just slipped past Rock Hill 3-2 in the two teams' most recent meeting on April 26.
There's so much parity in the Upper State, said Wren, and facing a quality team in Rock Hill is definitely a challenge for us. In the past you looked at your first round game as one that hopefully you can take care of early, but it's not going to be the case with Rock Hill. We know we're going to have to bring our best game.
Wren, who led the Trojans to four state titles in five years from 2005 to 2010, operates the team's Twitter account and he's fond of the hashtag #winorturnstuffin. Last Friday before practice, Wren deciphered the mantras meaning: I love the playoffs, and I'm trying to communicate to the boys that the playoffs are real simple: you win, or you turn your stuff in. You don't really need much more motivation than that.
For a team with just three seniors it may be difficult to foster the sense of urgency a more experienced side would have. But the three Trojan boys that won't be back Raad, Austin Newman and JaKari Golden certainly understand the #winorturnstuffin motto.
To think that Senior Night was only Wednesday, that got me thinking more, said Raad. That was my last game in the regular season but not my last game of the season. Turning my stuff in is something I don't want to do until after the state championship.
Northwesterns depth may make Raads wish come true. The Trojan boys have gotten goals from 13 different players this season with senior Austin Newman, junior Julian Welborn and sophomore Erwin Salazar the only three in double figures. 11 different players have assisted on goals, and the quality throughout the squad means there is no one player opposing teams can focus on stopping.
That's what you've got to have, said Wren. If you do get one contributor on your team shut down, you've got other guys that can step up and play.
Northwestern lost 5-1 to J.L. Mann in last years third round, a not so gentle reminder that everyone is playing for keeps in the postseason. That sobering experience deepened a young squad's understanding of the cutthroat nature of the playoffs, a characteristic the Trojans embodied during the regular season that they recently completed with an 18-match unbeaten run.
Our young guys have really stepped up, said Wren. And being that extra year or two wiser has really helped them. They've really blossomed this year.
Trojan girls eager to make amends for early 2012 exit
Cesar Robles' Trojan girls get their playoff journey underway on Monday with a home game against Westside High School courtesy of winning Region 3. They garnered a No. 1 seed last year, but Northwestern (15-5, 13-1 Region 3) was upset in the first round of the state tournament by Boiling Springs, a loss that sticks in their guts still.
That's one thing that we focused on all year, to obviously try and win the region, but then our goal after that has to be to not have the same results as last year, and to go past that first round like we should have, Robles said Friday.
The urgency is there for Robles' four college soccer-bound players Cara Pennington (Converse College), Helena Moore (Anderson), Lauren Watts (Winthrop) and Madeline Ramsey (LSU). The first three are seniors; Ramsey, just a junior, will graduate next December, making this her last spring soccer season too. All four want to make sure their season ends at a more justified level than a first round upset.
As Robles said, there is quite a bit of hunger to leave their legacy a positive one.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T