|NTL BOYS SOCCER: DESPITE GRADUATION LOSSES, LEZAK HAS HIGH EXPECTATIONS FOR WILDCATS IN 2018 (2018-08-31)
By TIM BIRNEY
Valley Sports Report
ATHENS — Longtime Athens boys soccer coach Jake Lezak sees a lot of potential in this year’s team, and has high expectations for the 2018 Wildcats.
“I’d like to see us be competitive, if not win, every non-league game.
“I’d like to see us win a fifth straight NTL title,” said Lezak. “I don’t know if any other team has done that — maybe Troy or Galeton did it years ago. It would be really exciting for the boys.
“I’d like to see us right back in the District finals, and potentially make another trip to the state tournament; to show the program does have that type of strength and potential,” he added.
Like a lot of teams, the Wildcats suffered heavy graduation losses, but Lezak feels his program is in position to handle those losses and remain a District 4 championship contender.
“We did lose a lot with the 11 we graduated, and we lost at every position, but the guys that have come in this year have already proven they’re up for the challenge,” said Lezak.
Junior Joel Maslin will start in net for the Wildcats with junior Trevor Brown, and sophomore Asher Ellis will serve as back-up.
Seniors Trent Neville and Zach Trasco, and juniors Doug Vosburg and Matt Nowacoski will start on the defensive line with Jameson Benninger-Jones and sophomore Landon Cobb adding depth.
“We’re strong defensively,” said Lezak. “In our scrimmage, we looked good in the back. It was a big question mark, but I’m pleased with where we’re at right now.”
Juniors Alex Rowe, Jesse Sumner, Luke Arnold, David Scheftic, and Aaron Lane will start in the midfield, and senior Willey Tilley will start at striker.
The return of Sumner, who missed his sophomore season due to a knee injury, will be a big boost for the Wildcats.
“Jesse is back healthy,” said Lezak. “He played a full spring season with his travel team. I don’t think he believes he’s at 100 percent in terms of his speed, but with what we do with our strength training and speed training, the goal is for him to be at 100 percent at the end of the season — we have plenty of time.
“Having him back is a big benefit,” noted Lezak.”He lettered as a freshman, and would have last year. We tried playing him in a couple games at the end of last year, but he just wasn’t ready.
“This year, having him adds another dimension,” he added. “He’s an experienced midfielder, and can play striker. He’s a huge utility player, who can be extremely dangerous. We just have to use him right.
Aside from his defense, Lezak cites his team’s intelligence and chemistry as strengths.
“I think our biggest strength right now is our soccer IQ. I think we have the guys where they understand the game.
“The way many of the players connect is also going to be a strength for us,” said Lezak.
Lezak said depth is a concern with a large contingent on sophomores and freshmen on the roster.
“My biggest concern would be maintaining our health,” he said. “With only four guys in the junior/senior classes who aren’t starting, depth in certain positions is definitely a concern.
“Hopefully it won’t come up, but it might require some guys to play a few different positions throughout the season,” Lezak noted.
Of course, if the Wildcats do stay healthy, Lezak believes the young roster will be long-term benefit.
“After our 11 junior and senior starters, we only have four left, so we’re going to be looking at the younger group to fill in at different spots, and gain experience, which is nice.
“Some people see it as a problem, but it allows us to use our youth a lot more,” said Lezak. “With just four seniors, we’re going to have a lot of depth in coming years.”
An early concern for Lezak is finding the net.
“As strange as it sounds with as many offensive weapons as we have, we weren’t putting the ball in the net,” he said. “We were content to possess the ball, and win it back and keep it, but we just weren’t dangerous when it came to putting the ball on target.
“The potential we have to put points on the board is there. We haven’t unlocked it yet, but we have time,” added Lezak.
How do you right the offensive ship?
It’s a lot of repetition, and getting the guys to take chances.,” said Lezak. “They have to be willing to push the ball through gaps, and they have to be willing to understand there’s a time and a place for a certain ball, even if it’s not a high-percentage ball for a guy to get in their defensive third.
“It still puts that team back on the top of their 18, where you’re forcing a defender to try and the ball at the top of the 18 and then play out,” added Lezak. “If we can do that effectively, they’re going to turn the ball back over to us higher up the field, or we’ll get it and go to the goal.”
ON THE NTL: Lezak and the Wildcats are seeking their fifth consecutive NTL title in 2018.
“I anticipate it will be us and Wellsboro at the top of the league again,” said Lezak.
“Wellsboro is a lot like us, they lost a lot of their top talent. Their JV team was very technically and tactically sound the last couple years, so I expect the same thing out of them,” he noted. “It might be a little different for them without coach Shaffer there, but the rest of the coaching staff has been there, so I don’t see that changing anything at all for them.
“There are some other teams with solid coaches who could be competitive,” added Lezak.
ON DISTRICT 4, CLASS AAA: The Wildcats actually were re-classified in the spring as a Class AA team, but elected to remain in Class AAA.
“To be honest, it was the obvious move to make,” said Lezak. “When you hit the semifinals of the Class AA boys in District IV, you’re essentially in the state tournament.”
When you have Lewisburg marching to the finals year after year, and they’re in your class, it makes it difficult,” he added.
Then, it got even tougher.
“This spring when the classifications came out, there were three District champs — Selinsgrove, Lewisburg, and Wellsboro — in Class AA,” said Lezak. “That makes for an unbelievable relentless tournament in Class AA.
“We decided to move up, it gives us a more legitimate chance to get through to States,” added Lezak. “It won’t be easy for us. Selinsgrove played six freshmen last season, and Jersey Shore brings back a tough team. If Mifflinburg moves back to Class AAA, they are a traditionally strong program.
Athens opens the season Saturday morning against Section IV small school power Greene.
IN PHOTO: Athens junior David Scheftic. … VSR STOCK PHOTOS.
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