BOYS' SOCCER: ON TO STATE
By BRANDON HURLEY
JEFFERSON - So many wonderfully different and exciting things make this historic Greene County soccer team as exceptional as they are, but a quiet confidence is perhaps most riveting.
Of course, the talents of all-world star Junior Gutierrez is a miraculous gift in itself, but the Rams’ belief and trust in their system and each other just two years in is what’s allowed them to make such a sudden and thrilling impact.
The Greene County soccer club (14-5) secured its first-ever trip to the state tournament last weekend, reaching the pinnacle of the sport in year two of existence.
The Rams upset fourth-ranked AHSTW 5-2 on May 25 in a Class 1A substate final, shutting out Iowa’s highest scoring team in the second half to capture their school-record 14th win, opening the flood gates for a wave of emotions. The Rams strung together quite the inaugural season a year ago, tallying a 10-9 record along with a playoff win, but this year’s squad has taken things a few steps further.
The 2019 state tournament berth is a tremendous feat for a school district that has been on the rise in recent months. But outside of the track team sending nine events to the state meet this month, Rams soccer is the first squad in a team sport to reach the state tournament in more than a decade.
(The Greene County/J-S/P-C football team has made the playoffs several times, but have not reached the UNI Dome since 2007).
The latest triumph in a historic season puts Greene County squarely on the map, which Austin Delp warns, could catch programs off guard if they don’t start paying attention.
“I just think it says they have to keep with us because we’re going to keep rolling and they can’t stop us,” the senior said.
There’s no hopes for a state title if Gutierrez doesn’t set the world on fire, though. The junior has tallied a school record 55 goals in 19 games, the third most goals in Iowa history, across all classes. His remarkable talent, with and without the ball at his feet, has allowed the Rams to become more confident in their own abilities. Gutierrez leads with a quiet and calm demeanor, putting in extra work whenever the time allows. He’s there before and after practice, honing his ever expanding repertoire.
“It is completely insane how hard he works,” goalkeeper Cael Fisher said. “He just never stops. It’s absolutely crazy.
Fisher continued, “The guys on our team, (we) see how he’s completely driven because he loves the sport. He loves the game. He’s really passionate about it.”
Gutierrez has steadily climbed the historic ranks throughout the spring, joining the likes of Iowa’s greatest soccer players ever. And he’s done it all without getting too big of a head or only looking out for his own future. Each dazzling and electrifying move he makes on the field is to push Greene County one step closer to a title.
“He is one of the most humble guys I know,” Delp said. “He’s the greatest teammate you could have. He’s not selfish, he helps out the entire team. He pushes everyone to be better. He’s a great role model.”
Gutierrez’s incredible control of the ball is what stands out initially. He guides the ball down field, as if attached to his feet by a string. He’s made some of the state’s best defenses look foolish on a number of occasions, doing so with a laser sharp focus, rarely shaking free of his neutral expressions during games. It’s safe to say the junior has quickly become one of the greatest athletes in school history, across any sport.
“Almost every single game we (are in awe). His talent is insane,” Delp said. “It’s a great thing to have on our team. He’s a great guy.”
Gutierrez not only is the state’s most lethal offensive weapon, but he also has a keen field awareness, which has allowed him to assist on 13 goals while setting up many other scoring opportunities. The offense works incredibly well with Gutierrez running the show, which has allowed the Rams to shatter the school record with 106 goals, the ninth highest total in the history of Iowa, across all classes. Sophomore Luis Velazco has scored 27 goals of his own, the 10th best total in 1A. Together, Velazco and Gutierrez form a duo that has scored 92 combined goals. They’ve propped up the overall confidence of the team with their top-notch ability.
“(Gutierrez) is so calm with the ball,” Delp said. “He trusts us when he’s making passes if he needs to. There’s a trustworthy relationship between all of us. That’s how our team works so well.”
Fisher has also made one heck of a difference since returning from an injury a few weeks ago. He’s spearheaded a defensive backline that stifled Iowa’s eighth highest scoring team in history and slowed down the likes of ranked Riverside and other potential threats.
“He provides a positive energy,” Delp said. “He keeps everyone up. He controls the backfield. He’s always talking to everyone, making sure they know what to do.”
Fisher was sidelined during Greene County’s only slump of the year, a stretch which saw the Rams suffer narrow losses to three ranked teams. With Fisher in net, who knows where Greene County’s win total would’ve ended up at. But while the junior was waiting for his turn to join his teammates again, he was getting his mind set straight.
“I was focused on the team and making sure we had the right mindset to be successful,” Fisher said. “If we don’t have that positive energy, things start to slip and people start to not work as hard and it turns into a mess.”
The Rams have won six straight since their three-game losing skid ended on May 11, only allowing seven goals during that span, out-scoring their opponents 37-7. As the team has grown, so has Fisher. He’s in his first year as varsity goalkeeper after taking a few years off to patrol the midfield, producing quite the stat line. Fisher has maintained a save percentage of 86.7 percent, turning back 85 shots while allowing just 13 goals all season, an average of 1.2 goals against per game. Natural talent can take any keeper a decent length, but its how they understand defensive schemes that impacts a team most.
“I’ve learned a lot and a lot of that just comes from experience,” Fisher said. “I’ve learned how to communicate with the defense and to make sure they are doing the right stuff. I’ve learned how to be in the right position, not too far off or too back. Just being ready, on the tips of my toes. “
The state is certainly on notice as the Rams embark on the state tourney Thursday. They’ll open the first round with a shot at redemption against two-time defending state champion Iowa City Regina and possibly another rematch in the semifinal match against a red-hot North Polk squad.
The Rams are confident, and know they have a shot at competing for a state title.
“We are setting the tone,” Fisher said. “For us being in our second year and already going to state, it’s nice. We are setting the bar for the rest of the culture to really step up.”
Greene County head coach Carl Behne and his guys are thrilled their grassroots effort to grow soccer within the county has been rewarded so soon. They knew coming into the spring this could be a special year, and last week’s substate final win was fitting vindication.
“It shows that last year we were for real, it wasn’t a fluke,” Behne said. “We set our lineup to get the most of our players and we’ve really maximized their strengths and abilities. This says a lot for our future growth and excitement. I think we are going to be a formidable force for years to come.”