All four Grays Harbor boys soccer teams this spring will feature all-league MVPs, first-team selections and individual excellence from the previous seasons.
Aberdeen’s Juanito Lopez, the Evergreen 2A leader in goals scored, returns with his league offensive MVP award on his resume. Hoquiam’s Israel Fernandez was the Evergreen 1A offensive MVP, while teammate Osiel Rivera shared the defensive MVP honor with Montesano’s Skye Jefferson.
Elma, not to be outdone, has three first-team selections returning, led by forward Trevor Hann, and makes up most of the eight Harbor first-team returning players.
However, their teams are all on different paths — two of them (Hoquiam and Elma) bring back a significant number of players to challenge for league and postseason status, one of them (Aberdeen) improved among a league full of big hitters and one team (Montesano) is rebuilding.
Over the next 10 days, all four teams will get a good look at each other in league and non-league contests.
Lopez, along with senior teammate Juan Oropeza, will be the two main field players counted upon the lead the Bobcats (10-8 overall, district qualifier) in a stacked Evergreen 2A campaign. Lopez will be up top for Aberdeen, while Oropeza will anchor the midfield.
“(Juanito) was one of the last guys cut from the Sounders FC (Academy) 18U squad,” AHS head coach Larry Fleming said. “There was some amazing competition there and he was right up there. Oropeza is a good control player and he’ll be key for us.”
All-league goalkeeper Jose Tinoco will move out of goal this season and will accompany Oropeza in the midfield. Transfer Andres Valdes, a sophomore, will take over as the starting goalkeeper.
Fleming sees Tinoco, who is one of the team’s tallest players, as a holding midfielder, while Valdes will take over in a long line of high-level AHS goalkeepers.
In front of Valdes, a returning group of defenders will have another year of experience under their belts — seniors Sam Ruiz and Blake Liscombe and juniors Titus Phillips and Seth Caba.
“Last year, we were a little light on experience (on defense), so we’re a little better at that this year,” Fleming said. “I always try to emphasize possession. Not only is it important, it is the best defense — possession on offense. We were not strong on that last year. It’ll be a challenge. We should be better than last year and the other teams have gotten better, too.”
Fleming sees reigning league champion Tumwater as the team to beat, along with newcomer Capital and rival Centralia.
Expectations may be hard to contain when it comes toward the Grizzlies this season, with all but one starter returning this season and the arrival of a senior striker to replace the graduated starter.
Fernandez and Rivera are two of the big-name returners for Hoquiam (14-4), which was a penalty kick shootout away from its second straight state 1A tournament appearance. However, senior goalkeeper Jamie Bigbie, defender D.J. Cox and midfielder Austin Montoure bring first-team honors back to the squad.
“It has been a very long time since we’ve had this depth and amount of seniors,” HHS head coach Fidel Sanchez said. “And, this is the first time in a very long time we’ve had everyone back. To be honest, we think making it to the final four is a realistic goal for us. That is what we’re shooting for. All we have to do is keep focus and have things go our way.”
Senior forward Jonathan Molina comes to Hoquiam’s squad from Yakima, via Lake Quinault, and is a one-year player who’ll help the Grizzlies replace graduated first-team forward Anthony Hernandez.
Hernandez will anchor the midfield, along with Montoure, senior Edgar Hernandez and junior Mario Joya. Rivera commands the defense with Alex Muñoz and junior Angel Mazariegos as center defenders and junior Nick Nagala will bookend the defense on the outside with Rivera.
“Two years ago, we went to state and last year, we lost to White Salmon on penalty kicks (in the winner-to-state district game),” Sanchez said. “We were second in league, so we still have work to do. It is a work in progress.”
Sanchez sees Elma and Rochester as the teams to most prepare for, with Montesano and Forks also teams to look at in the Evergreen 1A.
Nine players return to the squad for the Eagles this season, led by seniors Hann and Reynaldo Ayala up front and Garrett Thomas in the midfield, and are poised to improve on their third-place finish that netted a district-to-state play-in berth.
“The majority of (our nine returners) played significant minutes and all but two of them are starters,” Elma head coach Carson Seaberg said. “Even in different grades, there is some experience there. As a program, our goal has been to improve every year and this season brings an opportunity to bring more improvement.”
James Davis is the fourth returning senior for Elma. Junior midfielder (and first-team all-league pick) Edgar Hermenegildo returns with Tyler Davis and Julian Hernandez. Sophomores Steven Persell (an honorable mention) and Konan Katzer make up the returning squad for the Eagles (7-9, lost via penalty kicks to LaCenter in district-to-state game).
Also returning to the team is senior Jessy Stewart, who was lost for the season last year with a senior leg injury.
“We have a good mix of seniors, juniors and two good sophomores who are maturing and working hard,” Seaberg said. “We’re excited about the continuity of the program, players who are familiar with the system. If we make an improvement as a group, that’s a positive step for us. We’d like to get back (to the postseason). As a league, I’d like all of us to do better. When we get there, I don’t want to lose. You want that next step.”
Seaberg noted that his team will see the two league favorites — Hoquiam and Rochester — right off the bat in the league’s triple round-robin format. The fourth-year head coach also sees East County rival Montesano as a challenger with head coach Jeff Lenherr returning to the squad.
Jefferson is one of three starters and one of seven returners overall to the Bulldogs, which finished 4-12 last season. However, two of Montesano’s four wins came against rival Elma and that will be the team’s starting point in a rebuilding year.
“We’re going to be pretty young and inexperienced,” Lenherr said. “I have five players on varsity who have never played soccer before. It is tough, because we only have 10 practices before the first game on Monday (on the road at Tenino).”
With Jefferson anchoring the defensive unit, the Bulldogs aren’t without experience up the field. Senior goalkeeper Brett Cooper returns in goal, while sophomore wing/forward Brandon Lovell will be up front and junior David Sawyer taking over at midfield.
Seniors Tim St. Onge and Robert Sprinkle and sophomore Nolan Walker also return to the squad and will provide needed experience for the Bulldogs.
“They’re improving fast and are very athletic,” Lenherr said of his players. “That’s the one thing this year — we have more athletes than last year and they have a really good attitude. Yeah, I think they’ll improve a lot over the season. Last year, we improved by six goals and we were getting slammed early. Then, we turned it around by the end of the season.”
Lenherr noted Hoquiam as the league favorite, with Rochester second and Elma third.
“After that, it is a free-for-all,” he added.