If you had asked South Kitsap High boys soccer head coach Cory Vartanian two weeks ago what his goal for the season was, he would have responded, “We hope to compete.”
That’s an acceptable answer when your team finished its season at 4-4-6 last year in a league that is one of the strongest in the state. But now, sitting at 2-0 in league standings and not having been scored on, Vartanian is singing a different tune while remaining cautious about his team’s 14 remaining games.
“The SPSL is arguably the toughest league in the state for soccer,” Vartanian said.
“We need to be competitive and make a statement. It feels great to be 2-0. It shows what our group is capable of.”
In their first game of the year March 14, the Wolves beat Graham Kapowsin 3-0 with goals by Grant Larson, Eduardo De La Cruz and David Mansfield. For junior captain Mansfield, that goal is already one of his favorite career moments.
“I play defensive center mid, and it’s the first high school goal of my career,” he said.
Mansfield, along with fellow captains Larson (also a junior who plays left wing) and senior striker Jacob Ostrowski (who goes by Kuba), all believe their team has what it takes to continue on this road of success.
“We made a couple goals, but I think the main one was playing as a team, playing for each other,” Larson said.
“This year’s all about coming together and playing as a positive team.”
Vartanian agreed, saying this is the most coachable team he has had in his five years as head coach.
“They are all friends,” he said. “Everyone gets along, and they’ve been a pleasure to coach.”
Vartanian’s biggest challenge going into every season is how to develop his team’s playing style by successfully mixing the melting pot of players he acquires.
In high school soccer, player ages can range up to four years apart. They come in different sizes and play for different clubs, yet the players all willingly join together to form into one cohesive team.
“My goal every year is (to discover) what’s our style of soccer? What’s our brand? How are we going to excel and play the South Kitsap way?” he said.
This year’s team strategy has included a lot of fitness training.
On a rainy practice day on March 20, the team ran along the perimeter of the field at Kitsap Bank Stadium. They spread out as they transitioned from jogging to sprinting as Vartanian yelled out directions for 10 minutes.
And that was just the beginning. “We had a goal set to be able to run with each team,” Vartanian said. “We have 14 more games to go.”
And while fitness is an important aspect, Vartanian attributes his team’s current undefeated streak to its collective personality.
“There is no selfishness on this team,” he said. “I think that’s a huge reason we are 2-0 right now. They all play for each other.”
After Mansfield scored his first goal in the match against Graham Kapowsin, he said that not only was scoring memorable, so were the moments afterward spent with his teammates.
That doesn’t mean they don’t want fans to share in the thrill at the stadium every home game they can.
“It’s not only that we play for each other, but when we look up in the stands, it gives us an extra boost and something else to fight for,” Ostrowski said.
“It adds a lot of mental strength” to have the support of the Wolves’ fans.
With the Wolves soon facing competitors such as Puyallup, Bellarmine and Sumner — three teams that went to state last year — every 7 p.m. matchup will be a battle to the finish.
“I remember what it was like getting to play under the lights,” Vartanian said.
“It’s a different atmosphere than during club (matches), playing in front of your parents. Any support gets you motivated.”
South Kitsap’s next home games are against Puyallup March 24 and Bellarmine March 30.
Mansfield said a big part of success in the new league is mental toughness.
“Some of us know players on the other teams from club matches, so it’s a different beast to fight.”
And while that beast is large and looming, Vartanian has faith his team will continue to grind out wins.
“We’re going to surprise a lot of people,” he said. “We’re going to compete against every team and we are going to give this thing a go.