All the right moves
Solid soccer season came down to three moments
Asked to describe his favorite memory from this year's soccer season, De Soto coach Darren Erpelding went with three different answers.
Together the three showed the emotion this year's team lived with.
First was De Soto's 2-0 win at Gardner.
It wasn't a game that launched the six-game, five-shutout winning streak that went on to define the Wildcats' 12-6 season. It came toward the end of that stretch and was some of the best soccer the team played in 2007.
Goal-scoring senior leader Zach England had already grown comfortable in his new role as the team's sweeper. The defense, which allowed seven goals in De Soto's first six games, had stiffened. By the time the Cats were finished with Gardner, they had survived 320 minutes without a goal.
Meanwhile the Cats' offense was beginning to pick up, asserting itself to replace England.
Held scoreless in its first three losses of the season, the attack solidified and scored at least two goals for four consecutive games.
Freshmen Octavio Villa and Jordan Riffel both scored against Gardner.
The game didn't start De Soto's winning streak. It defined it.
"We played with an intensity and fire I have not seen from a De Soto athletic team in a long time," Erpelding said.
Erpelding's second favorite moment came with the final game of the season.
De Soto's streak finally snapped with a 1-0 overtime loss at home to Gardner, but it didn't wreck the team's strong season. Already in the bag was a program-first 3-0 win over powerhouse Maranatha.
The Cats followed the Gardner loss with a 4-2 Senior Day win against Eudora, then opened the playoffs by outlasting Bishop Ward in an ugly home game.
De Soto was denied another program first when it was ousted from the playoffs in the regional championship, falling to Kansas City Christian 4-1, but in the loss was plenty of inspiration, Erpelding said.
Christian came into the game the two-time defending state champions and the favorite to take the crown again. They played like it, using unmatched size and speed to build a 3-0 first half lead.
The Cats came out in the second, however. England played what Erpelding termed the finest game of his career in warding off the relentless Christian forwards. Junior goalie Tyler Phongsavath added several key saves.
Offensively seniors Scott McKechnie and TJ Blankenship combined with Villa and Slater to turn the pressure back on KCC, to steal the momentum when there didn't seem any to be had.
"I thought we couldn't match the Gardner game, but the second half of that game, I have never been more proud of a team," Erpelding said.
Slater put De Soto on the board midway through the period, and he nearly pulled the game within one moments later.
It wasn't to be. A one-handed grab by the goalie stopped Slater's second near-goal and the favorites put one more goal away in the waning minutes to douse any hopes of a comeback.
They went on to finish third in state.
"Our kids flat left it on the field," Erpelding said. "We played with the No. 1 team in the state and dominated in the second half.
"We may have lost that game, but that was a huge springboard for the future."
It could be a bright future if the final game and the mid-season stretch are any indication.
They were efforts led by seniors -- England's ever-present defense earned him first-team all league honors, Blankenship led the team with seven goals and along with Paul Oswald earned second-team all-league honors -- but they were constantly complimented by underclassmen.
Sophomore Duncan Henderson joined England on the all-league team, and Phongsavath made second team. If he's not already, he could easily become one of the best goalies in the state for his senior season, Erpelding said.
"His growth was unbelievable," Erpelding said of Phongsavath, who just took the position over full time this season. "He was a leader from goal this year in games and in practice.
"I know I am biased, but he is outstanding ... I firmly believe he is hands down the top goalkeeper in Class 4A-1A."
And then there was the final moment, something off the field that tied the team's passion, its closeness and its emotion -- the things that made this the best soccer season in years -- all together.
"When Scott McKechnie's dad passed away we went to the funeral as a team. The boys were dressed in their green jerseys and black slacks with black shoes. We walked to the door where Scott was standing as a team and Zach handed Scott a game ball from the Maranatha game the day before," Erpelding said. "It was one of the most awesome sights I have ever seen. For kids at the age of 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18 years old to go outside of themselves to be there for him is pretty rare this age.
"I knew right then and there how special this team was. I knew they were special from a previous time but this showed how great the bond was. I don't know if I will ever see anything like that again. I hope to God not in those circumstances."
It was an 18 game season with 32 goals scored and 15 against. One thousand, four hundred and fifty-five minutes of soccer easily broken into three moments.