Despite losing 16 seniors from one of the best seasons in school history, the Cleveland boys’ soccer team is not in rebuilding mode, but ready to once again be one of the top dogs in District …
Despite losing 16 seniors from one of the best seasons in school history, the Cleveland boys’ soccer team is not in rebuilding mode, but ready to once again be one of the top dogs in District 5-AAA.
For a group returning four players with significant varsity minutes last season, the goal is still for the new-look Blue Raiders to defend their district championship, and perhaps make a run to the tape for their first regional title since 2009.
“Our guys have had success for a while, so they expect big things out of themselves and this season,” said John Brose, Cleveland’s 11th-year head coach. “I am really excited about this talented group and we have a strong senior class of 13. They got a taste for going deep in the postseason last season, and they want to emulate that if they can.
Cleveland’s 15-4-3 record last season made for the most wins in program history since it made a run to the Class AAA state tournament with 18-win and 20-win seasons in 2008 and 2009.
A tough and controlling style of soccer will look to help the Blue Raiders make for their third-straight undefeated regular season in district play.
“We have always been a small and finesse team, sort of,” Brose said. “I think our guys have learned in a couple of our scrimmages we have to be more physical, especially against good teams, if we are going to accomplish what we want. In this day and age of soccer it’s not enough to be skilled, you have to be physical on the field as well.”
Senior defensemen Dillon Alexander and River Shaffer will look to limit opponents’ attacks and will serve as the team’s two captains with the opening match of the season this Monday on the road against Coffee County at 7 p.m.
“Dillon started nearly every game last year for us at center back and we look for him to be one of the anchors of our defense,” Brose said. “River is a hockey player at heart because that was his main sport growing up. He is a workhorse and has shown great leadership this preseason.”
Replacing departed goalkeeper Gustavo Wilhelm, who posted eight shutouts for a defense allowing just 1.2 goals per game, will be senior Braxton Wiggins.
“Braxton got some good minutes last year,” Brose said. “He has some valuable experience and he is able to see the whole field. He has been vocal throughout the preseason and we expect that every game out of him.”
Prideful of their ability in the past to be one of the best possession teams in the region and perhaps state, a sophomore leader is looking to set a strong tempo at midfield.
“Casey Beck started the majority of last season as a freshman and will be huge for us in the center of the field,” Brose said. “He is really calm on the ball and distributes the ball nicely. He is able to change the point of attack and pull the strings that we need from our midfield position.”
Cleveland expects senior forwards Tommy Marino and Jordan Lopez to be the recipients of strong passes and land double-digit goals this season.
“Tommy is our top returning scorer from a year ago,” Brose said. “We had three guys in the 10-11 range of goals and he was one of those. We expect him to elevate his game even more. Jordan did not play much last year, but he has scored some goals for us this preseason and should provide some firepower up front.”
While last season ended with a tough 3-2 double overtime loss on the road against Cookeville in the region championship before a 3-1 sectional defeat to a powerhouse in Oakland two days later, the Blue Raiders hope they can once again challenge for a state slot again in 2017. Their four losses came by six points in 2016.
Cleveland has eight straight wins against district foes, with its last league defeat coming against East Hamilton in the 2015 district tournament championship.
“We have set some measurable goals and those surround the postseason, district and region tournament,” Brose said. “We want to posses the ball, get forward and score a lot. We want to play a pretty style of soccer that is going to be entertaining and build excitement throughout Cleveland H.S. and the community.”
Not shy to invite some of the state’s best talents into town, the Blue Raiders will play a tough schedule in the ninth annual Cleveland Classic.
From March 23-25 they will host Maryville (Thursday, 7:30 p.m.), Shelbyville (Friday, 8 p.m.) and Livingston Academy (Saturday, 4 p.m.) at the Greater Cleveland Soccer Complex.
Maryville tied the host 1-all in the classic last season and fell 1-0 in the district championship game to Class AAA champion Bearden.
“It is good to have this tournament early in the season to really test yourself and see where you are at with some tough teams from around the state,” Brose said. “Maryville has had good teams the last five or six years, and Shelbyville won their district last year.”
The Blue Raiders’ first district home contest will come against a tough Walker Valley squad on April 4 at 7 p.m.
“We want to do the little things right that will make us successful,” Brose said. “We need to embrace the grind and improve daily in practice and through games, to where we hit our stride come postseason.”
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