Pats soccer has tightrope to walk

Herald File Photo
Junior Gabe Staggs is a returning playmaker for Heritage Hills boys soccer.

LINCOLN CITY — The Heritage Hills boys soccer team had a lot to be proud of at the end of last season.

The Patriots overcame season-long injury issues to make the sectional finals, where they fell against the Evansville Memorial Tigers, 4-1. The team would have loved to come away with a championship, but Patriots coach Joe Asbury was proud of how his boys fought through their injury woes to finish 14-2-3.

“We thought we made a good run last year,” he said. “We lost on Jasper’s field and Memorial’s field in the sectional finals. For those to be our only two losses, those are two of the best programs in Southern Indiana. We felt there was no shame in those two losses, and really fought and had a good season.”

Asbury said the team has some holes to fill in if the Pats want to keep pace with what they did last year, but believes he has the talent to shift around players to suit the Patriots’ needs. It helps that they have playmakers like junior Jose Lara and junior Gabe Staggs coming back. Asbury described them as quick wing players who are able to put a lot of pressure on opposing nets.

Junior Derek Fortune could also be a key player, with Asbury mentioning the Patriots can take advantage of his size and foot dexterity to make openings for shots. Junior Brody Ficker is coming back from a torn ACL and will be one of the defensive anchors for the Patriots. Asbury is going with sophomore Aiden Harris as his goalkeeper, but he has all the confidence that Harris will play beyond his years and protect the net.

“It’ll be a different look for us in the goal,” Asbury said. “He won’t look like a sophomore when you see us play. That’s a big replacement from Sam Scott, who was a really good keeper for us. He’s bigger, can cover more ground in the air and will cover more space between the goalposts.”

Asbury’s first concern is getting the team’s fitness level up to par for the season. COVID-19 prevented players from participating in spring soccer and other sports, so the players have been left on their own to keep themselves in shape. Getting back to their peaks will feed into the Patriots’ playstyle, which Asbury thinks will be a bit more conservative than last year’s team. He is envisioning the Patriots using more possession-based tactics to control the ball while Lara and Staggs work on the outside to create shots.

“We got our conditioning program going, but that’s no substitute for continuing to play in the offseason,” he said, while also adding that building team chemistry will be vital so players can recognize when their teammates are in the best spots to be effective. “Even if they weren’t playing soccer, they could have been active in other things. That fitness is going to be important to us. We’re going to pick and choose how we use our energy.”

Asbury is making sure the Patriots are following the new safety guidelines so they can make their opening game Aug. 18 at home against Boonville. And in keeping with building the team’s fitness level, Asbury doesn’t want a repeat of last year where the Patriots were hobbled with various injuries throughout the season. Going into the fall at full strength is a must, as any major injuries would challenge the team’s depth in a mighty way.

“We can’t hobble into the season with kids having shin splints and pulled this and pulled that because their fitness level wasn’t good enough at the start of camp,” Asbury said. “We’re going to have to be smarter going into mid-August games.”

The new teams in the Pocket Athletic Conference add another layer of challenges for the Patriots. Asbury said it’s different playing teams like Washington and Princeton now that they’ll factor into the Pats’ conference record, so the margin for error is that much smaller. Maintaining a consistent high-level of soccer is the only way the Patriots can navigate this new gauntlet and get back to the sectional finals.

“This year, it’ll be interesting to see if we’re the kind of team that can play consistently well,” Asbury said. “Emotionally, we’re going to be pushed more often than in the past. We’re going to have to work on that.”

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