Heady play catapults Rangers to new heights

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Forest Park’s Dakota Begle headed the ball during last weekend’s Class 1A soccer regional championship in Fort Branch. Aerial command has been crucial for the Rangers, who captured the program’s first regional title and will challenge No. 5 Speedway at approximately noon in Saturday’s semistate in Floyds Knobs. The winner will play in the championship at 6 against Providence or No. 17 Oldenburg Academy.

Herald Sports Writer

In Forest Park’s tussle with South Spencer in late September, senior Max Rickelman leapt for a ball only to get cracked himself.

Truly, cracked.

A head-on-head collision left the senior with a skull fracture, broken jaw and blown ear drum that bled for two hours.

Rickelman has been sidelined for the remainder of the season but has regained hearing in the ear.

Nevertheless, the action embodied what’s grown into the Rangers’ newfound self.

“We’re fearless,” Rickelman said. “It’s the craziness, the stupidity, it’s something you won’t find in another team.”

The adage goes hand in hand with what Aaron Trafton learned when he played for the Rangers.

“You’ve got to want it,” the Forest Park boys soccer assistant coach recalled hearing. “You’ve got to want it more than the other person.”

Ken Sicard, the former Forest Park coach and father of current Ranger coach Brent Sicard, emphasized the idea while his team worked on corner kicks during a practice Trafton’s sophomore year in 2002.

“It all kind of clicked,” Trafton said.

Flash forward 11 years, and a similar psyche has infiltrated the minds of this year’s Rangers (13-3-3), who will collide with No. 5 Speedway (21-2) in the Class 1A semistate semifinals at approximately noon Saturday at Floyd Central. If Forest Park advances, the team will wrestle with the winner of Providence (12-6-2) and 17th-ranked Oldenburg Academy (14-4-1) in the championship at 6 p.m. for a spot in next Saturday’s state finals in Indianapolis.

The aggressiveness is most clearly exhibited in the Rangers’ aerial command. It’s a calculated crazy, and a facet that embodies the squad.

In the coaches’ eyes, a trio of players has piloted the charge: steady senior Dakota Begle, his evolved classmate Cody Tempel and soaring junior Austin Bromm. Together, the Rangers have “really (fed) off each other” in their skyward pursuit, Begle said.

“A lot of times, the team that wins more 50-50 balls is the team that pulls out ahead,” he continued. “It has a lot to do with possession and just overall aggressiveness. Aggressiveness is key in soccer. The team that goes out and wants it is probably going to pull out ahead.”

The notion materialized in the Rangers’ two regional clashes against Evansville Mater Dei and Washington Catholic, particularly in each match’s closing minutes, when the Wildcats and Cardinals both brought the masses forward for a last-ditch corner kick. Each time, the Rangers smothered the threat.

Evidenced by the final stands and through the Rangers’ unceasing chase of loose balls, particularly above the head-line, Trafton said he’s witnessed a shift in approach over the last two seasons.

“These whole two years now of being together and going through so many battles, I think they just kind of feed off of each other,” Trafton said. “They know that they can take it to teams.”

They’ve rarely shied away.

In a 2-1 victory over Evansville North in mid-September, modestly sized forward Spenser Sermersheim collided heads with a tall Husky defender, sending Sermersheim’s tooth through his cheek. He went on to tally four goals in the next four matches.

“There’s no fear,” a smiling Rickelman said.

Yet it’s far from reckless abandon. The boldness is often well planned.

On free kicks inside their attacking third of the field, the Rangers look one step ahead, as at least one player will sprint toward the goal in anticipation of a teammate winning the initial head ball. If that happens, the oncoming player is there, a strategem Joel Weyer executed to punch home the game-winner against Mater Dei in the regional semifinals.

And on opponents’ corner kicks and set pieces near the Ranger goal, Tempel, Bromm and Begle often roam freely while teammates engage in one-on-one battles.

“We’ll try to stay free so we can navigate around and not have to worry about marking someone up,” Bromm explained. “And then we’ll head the ball out ourselves.”

The defensive formula worked at regional, and it worked against Washington during the regular season, when Forest Park turned away a dozen Hatchet corner kicks in a 1-all draw.

“Our energy just goes through the whole game,” Tempel said.

“They could be in the perfect position, but if they don’t get the ball, they’re not going to score.”

No one personifies the expanded physicality better than Tempel, teammates and coaches agree. The four-year starter always has had the skill, but the punch he’s polished as the central defender has paid the largest dividends.

“If you took a video of him freshman year and took a video of him now, it would be no comparison how much better he got. And that’s hard to believe considering how good he was as a freshman,” Begle said of Tempel. “But I think that comes down to his aggressiveness. His skills were already there as a freshman but now he’s got that aggressive edge that kind of puts him over the offensive players.”

The program’s younger talent has noticed the progress as well. Brent Sicard and Trafton have wanted to see freshman Blake Mohr become a similar force in the air because of his size advantage. After observing the upperclassmen, Mohr understands why.

“With their head balls, we see how aggressive they are with it, contesting everybody,” Mohr said. “It just makes us want to strive to do the same thing.”

Signaled by the Rangers’ two decisive victories in Fort Branch last week, “a lot of the fear that might have been there last year is gone,” Trafton said. In its place is a verve that’s yet to relent. And at this stage, it simply can’t if the Rangers hope to survive.

“When it gets to this point in the tournament, it’s all about heart,” Begle said. “What it all boils down to is how much heart your team wants to put forward. And I think that’s what our team has going for us.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.

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