MORGANTOWN — They say to never judge a book by its cover, and according to fourth-year University boys’ soccer coach Michael Smith, last year’s 5-12-3 dust jacket was definitely not the whole story.
“We went into the year missing a lot of key pieces, especially on offense,” he said, “so we decided to change to a more defensive posture. In retrospect, I would have done things differently, because we never found ourselves offensively, and as a result, we lost a boatload of close matches — Morgantown, Dover, Wheeling Park and others. I honestly believe that last year’s team was not really that far away from being a Regionals-caliber team. But that’s soccer.”
This year, with nine seniors and seven returning starters, the Hawks are looking to return to their ball-pressuring style in an effort to jump-start their attack, which, not surprisingly, makes senior defenders Braden Bell and Drew Greathouse more than happy.
“We were kind of constrained to jump up last year,” Greathouse said, “but if we have the freedom to move forward, we can connect with our midfield and even add into the attacking third at times. We hope to bring numbers in transition, and staying aggressive always suits a soccer player’s mentality. As long as we communicate and stay responsible, I think we can put up numbers this year.”
Bell agrees, and sees team depth as a dependable asset heading into the season.
“We had a very short bench last year,” he said, “which meant that we tended to fall back and fall in effort down the stretch in matches. It led to draws and losses. But this year, we are much deeper, so everyone knows there is no excuse not to go full-out every minute they’re on the field, because the next man up can step in and be trusted. That should allow us to put maximum pressure on the ball, create turnovers and transition opportunities, which hopefully will lead to more goals. We all have a fire in our bellies after last year, and we’re ready to turn things around right away.”
Of course, old habits are sometimes tough to break — but that’s what practice and coaching are for, right?
“We definitely found ourselves walking too much last season, simply out of necessity,” Smith said. “If you know you aren’t coming out, and you’re gassed, you kind of have no choice but to conserve your energy. And that’s not to say that our fitness level was poor, because it’s just a genetic fact that some players can run all day, while others take longer to recover.
“But this year, there is no excuse,” he continued with a smile, “and I’ve had to, uh … remind them of that on occasion. Quality depth is such an advantage, and I see us rolling 22 players into the rotation this season, with the separation between best and next much less. If everyone buys in — and the seniors are leading the way in sending that message — there’s no reason we shouldn’t play higher quality soccer and produce the results that the UHS boys’ soccer program has come to expect.”