A 4-14-3 record doesn’t offer much reason for optimism.
But this year’s struggles are a key reason Payson boys varsity soccer coach Chris Avakian feels upbeat about the Longhorns’ future.
A young team with just two seniors, both rookies, experienced a lot of growing pains this fall. The Longhorns were 2-9-2 in the games used in the power rankings, which determine the seeding for the 12-teamed Division IV state tournament.
Avakian said the experience will prove invaluable for the 19 players eligible to return in 2014. The players learned how hard they must work if they hope to compete with the better teams in the state.
“The whole season overall was a positive,” Avakian said. “It was an eye-opening experience for the younger kids. They found out you don’t just show up in August and compete against older teams. I’m hoping they realize now that you have to put in the work in the offseason to be in the top five.”
The Longhorns actually would have been happy to finish among the top 12 this season and qualify for the Division IV state tournament. But injuries and academically ineligible players made the situation even more difficult.
“I think we only played the same lineup twice the whole season with everything that went on,” Avakian said. “That’s a big deal because you’re not sure where the other kid is on the field and the other kid is not sure of what you’re going to do. So that affects the cohesiveness. That comes with playing the game and the experience.”
But this season’s experience should pay off next fall, given the determination among the returning players to improve.
“The kids are already talking about off-season work and recruiting other kids to come play,” the coach said. “They realize we have work to do to get to where we want to be. It was an eye-opening experience for the kids and myself. We need the offseason work and the summertime work. They’ve already asked me ‘when do we start’ off-season (work). That’s exciting. They’re saying ‘we need to get out there and have practice.’ That’s fun. The trials and tribulations of this year will pay off in the seasons to come as they grow, becoming bigger, faster and stronger and have more time.”
The coach said the team’s seniors, Cody Shepard and Austin Armstead, worked hard to improve in their first season of soccer.
“This was the first time either of them had ever played soccer,” Avakian said. “They didn’t have the experience or leadership. You don’t realize how big that is until you don’t have it.
“But Austin really stepped up into a leadership role and he’ll be missed next year,” Avakian said. “And Cody broke his foot against Holbrook and missed the last three games and he was sorely missed and will be missed next year.”
Another injury had a ripple effect on the season after sophomore Jacob Avakian, slated to start at goalkeeper, suffered a concussion in the season-opener against Show Low, missing the rest of the season. With the other net minder a freshman not quite ready for the varsity, the Longhorns needed someone else to step up for the good of the team. Sophomore Gerardo Moceri did just that, moving from midfield in between the pipes.
“Gerardo was one of our best field players and we had to play him in goal,” Avakian said. “We were hoping to find a goalie and get him out of goal (but we never did). He did that for the team.
“He played goalie in the past and it was like, ‘want to play goalie?’ He said, ‘not really, but OK.’ He knew he was our best choice with the injuries and we just kept him in the job.”
The coach said he’s proud that the players kept coming to practice and games and kept working.
“Everybody just played to the end of the game and never gave up, which is a good sign,” Avakian said. “They’re a good team together. All the kids stepped up and played hard.”
Another positive, according to Avakian, is the possibility that Payson could have a middle school team on the field this coming spring. That’s something the program has lacked, leaving the Longhorns at a disadvantage against many schools at the varsity level.
“They’re trying to start a middle school team,” he said. “That’ll be a good feeder program for the high school because we have no middle school team and they play football through middle school and to pry them away from football in high school is nearly impossible. But if we have a middle school team they can play soccer and say, ‘oh, we can play soccer in high school.’”
He said he attended a meeting to discuss a summer league for varsity teams and talked to the varsity coaches at Chino Valley, Cottonwood Mingus, Camp Verde and Sedona Red Rock and learned they all have a team for their sixth- through eighthgraders. And many of those players continue on to play on the varsity.
“I came back from that meeting and said, ‘we need to do this,’” Avakian said. “None of our kids showed up to go play in the summer. I was trying to get us in a summer league so we could get some games under our belt. All those coaches said their middle schools played soccer.”
So he talked to Rim Country Middle School athletic director Gary Fishel about setting up a team, which would play in the spring.
“He said he was going to look into it,” Avakian said. “Then the last time I talked to him he told the other coaches to pencil him in and we’ll see if we can make it a go.”