By Jeff Keeling
Consider Science Hill’s boys’ soccer team reloaded.
Despite the loss of nine seniors, including starting goalkeeper Grayson Garland, the defending state runner-up Hilltoppers are looking formidable going into tonight’s opening game at Jefferson County. The game is at 7 p.m. at Kermit Tipton Stadium.
“We should, just like last year, be a pretty tough team to play against,” head coach David Strickland said last week. He called this year’s version of the Toppers, “a touch more technical” than last year’s team, which while adopting the possession-oriented, Barcelona style of offense still had a measure of physicality.
“We’ve got some guys that are really looking sharp in training,” Strickland said.
The team, which carries plenty of weapons and is led by Wofford College signee Lucas Altman, should learn rather quickly where it stacks up regionally. This weekend the Toppers head to Augusta, Ga., where they’ll face Georgia powers Greenbrier, Westminster School of Augusta and Walton in the Regions Border Classic Tournament.
By mid-April, the Toppers should know plenty about where they stack up among the state’s elite. Their schedule is front-loaded, with home matchups against Farragut, Hardin Valley, and Bearden, and dates with conference rivals Tennessee High and Dobyns-Bennett, along with a trip to Bearden’s tournament in Knoxville.
“We’re going to have to play the hard teams to make it to the state finals, so I load them into my schedule as much as I possibly can,” Strickland said.
The Toppers have only one option if they are to improve one more step, as they have each of the past two years – they’ll have to win the state championship. 2015’s team was 23-2-2 when it fell to Houston, 3-2, in the state championship. That heartbreaking loss included two penalty kick goals by Houston.
In 2014, the Toppers were 22-0-1 when they lost in the state semifinal, 3-0, to eventual champion Franklin.
Strickland said despite the losses, including at goalkeeper (Grayson Garland) and center backs (Alec Jacobs and John Lucchesi), he’s confident. Junior Grant Watson will take over in front of the net, and Strickland had a short summation of the guy who will take over for a keeper who allowed just four goals in the 15 games leading up to the state championship: “I feel great about him.”
Hoping to help keep Watson as bored as possible will be center backs Scott Lich and Daniel O’Leary, with Lich, a junior, occupying the more defensive, holding type role. O’Leary, a senior, “is a very gifted, technical player,” Strickland said.
Lucchesi now plays at ETSU, and despite the talent and experience of O’Leary and Lich, Lucchesi and Jacobs will be hard to replace.
“Our big holes that will help us find out what we’re about are our two center backs,” Strickland said.
Flanking the center backs in Strickland’s 4-2-3-1 system will be senior Remi Koch and junior Sam Massey. Koch played varsity last year and Massey had worked his way to varsity, and into some playing time, by the state tournament.
The wing spots currently belong to junior Elliott Fry and senior Conner Wilson. Strickland is high on Fry.
“He is a special, special player. He’s so smooth on the ball and so creative. We’re lucky to have him; he is good.”
Sharing time at the striker position will be juniors Rob McDermott and Gus Miller. Miller is taller and more in the high ball, traditional striker mode, while McDermott is a speedster who finishes well and has a great mind for the game, Strickland said.
But it will all run through Altman, a gifted player whose hat trick helped lift Science Hill to a 3-2 home win over Oak Ridge in last year’s semifinal matchup that pitted an even more physical Wildcats team against the Toppers. “He’s the playmaker of the group,” Strickland said. “He’s creating, he’s scoring goals – he has a lot of freedom.”
Altman said last year’s loss to Houston still stings and will be a motivator.
“I’m excited about this year,” he said. “A lot of guys graduated, but there’s a lot of talent left. I’m confident in these guys, and I think a few players can step up to the plate and fill the roles of the players we lost last year. It’s going to be a good year.”
The 2015 Toppers were very difficult to score against, but didn’t always take full advantage of what was often a lopsided edge in possession.
“I think this year we’re going to be a little more effective scoring goals,” Strickland said.
Altman said this weekend’s tournament trip should help the team begin to gel. “We’ll get some good competition. It’ll take us a little bit to get used to playing with each other, but I’m excited about it.”
In conference, Strickland said Dobyns-Bennett, coached by Blake Rutherford, “is going to be absolutely loaded.” He mentioned Jordan Broadwater, Olan Click and goalkeeper A.J. Robbins as among the stalwarts for the Indians, who will visit Kermit Tipton Stadium April 15. Tennessee High, led by standout Orlando Rosales, could provide a tough match as well.
Getting to Murfreesboro, and winning there, will depend not just on how the team steps up in the wake of last year’s senior departures, but also on something largely beyond its control, Strickland said.
“We need to be healthy to get there. Our bench is not as deep as last year, just because of youth – but we can be pretty competitive.”