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Chris Avakian, Payson High’s boys soccer coach, is taking a novel approach in preparing the 2013 team for the upcoming season.
“I tell (the players) we are not playing last year’s team, so just go have fun,” Avakian said.
The innovative attitude is obviously an effort to let the players know there is no pressure of having to live up to the accomplishments of last year’s team, which was one of the most successful in the history of the program.
The 2012 Horns eventually advanced to the state semifinals and on the way to the big show tied highly regarded Blue Ridge twice.
The first tie, a 0-0 dead knot on Oct. 2, ended the nationally No. 1 ranked Yellow Jackets’ three-year winning streak setting off a celebration that rivaled the merriment caused by U.S. defender Brandi Chastain decision to go topless at the ’99 Women’s World Cup.
Avakian’s orders to his players to not try to live up to their heralded predecessors is only logical since 20 players off that squad graduated last spring and the coach now has an entirely new set of student-athletes.
“We are in a rebuilding year, but I do think we can sneak up on some people,” Avakian said.
There are a few returning players, however, with whom Avakian can build his new team.
Felix Cruz, Trevor Clawson and Gerardo Mocceri return to hold down defender and midfield positions.
Avakian is also expecting good things from newcomers Austin Armstead and Cody Shepherd, both seniors.
With so few returning letter winners, Avakian has focused practices on conditioning, fundamentals and plugging players into positions where they can best help the team.
He says fans can expect to see the team run the same offensive and defensive schemes that it has executed since he was first hired.
He’ll have the opportunity to learn if his efforts have been successful when the new season tips off Sept. 7 at Rumsey Park against Grand Canyon.
“That will give us a chance to see where we are with all these new kids,” Avakian said. “They are young, but I think they are up to the challenge.”
Although Avakian is in his sixth year as head coach, he is not completely sure which teams will be the Horns’ toughest opponents.
“Graduation always makes a difference in how good teams are, but I’m sure Blue Ridge will once again be good,” he said. “Camp Verde was young last year and could contend.”
The mere mention of Camp Verde might rekindle nail-biting memories among PHS soccer fans. In the first round of the 2012 state tournament, a huge underdog Cowboy team traveled to Payson for what was supposed to be a landslide win for the Horns. But lo and behold, CV rose up to come within a whisper of slaying Goliath taking a two goal lead midway through the game. However, the Longhorns eventually rallied to win 3-2 in two sudden death shoot-outs.
With preseason practices winding down and the onset of the new season just over the horizon, Avakian has set just one goal of his young charges, “just make it to the playoffs and anything can happen.”