BOYS' SOCCER: Despite vanished hopes of a state title, Rams take aim at a return trip to state
By BRANDON HURLEY
The excitement is palpable.
Last year’s cancellation shook the Greene County boys’ soccer program to the core. Hopes of a state title evaporated before the first kick rolled from the center line.
Despite the devastation of a spring without soccer, the pipeline remains rich with talent.
The 2021 Rams are rejuvenated, motivated by loss and potential.
Greene County was poised for a legitimate run at a state championship last spring before the Coronavirus pandemic intervened. Greene County was coming off their first-ever state tournament trip in 2019 thanks to a school record 14 wins and 106 total goals.
The Rams took two-time defending champion Iowa City Regina to overtime in the state quarterfinals before losing. Regina went on to defeat Waterloo Columbus Catholic in the 2019 state championship, winning 1-0.
GC was set up to bounce back rather nicely and make a reasonable run at a state title last year before the Coronavirus outbreak canceled the entire season.
Gone are foundational pieces such as Junior Gutierres, Yunior Carballo and Cael Fisher, headlining perhaps one of the greatest what-ifs in recent memory. Gutierres led all of Iowa in scoring in 2019, tallying a school-record 55 goals, which was one of the most prolific outputs in state history. He still managed to finish as Greene County’s all-time leading goal-scorer with 74 total goals in two seasons.
Redemption’s driving force has snaked its way into Greene County’s early season practice sessions, leaving head coach Carl Behne anxious a few days out from game No. 1.
“I think their level of intensity and practice rubs off on the other guys, because they’re hungry for it. They’re frustrated that they missed out, They saw the writing on the wall for what we felt like was a deep run in 2019,” Behne said. “They’re really feeling that fire themselves. It is fun to watch as a coach, and certainly my competitive nature kicks in and I kind of help ramp it up a notch or two.”
From the outside, losing one of the best soccer players in state history would be a tall task to overcome. But, the Rams have plenty of remaining and incoming talent to anchor even more victories this spring. Luis Velazco returns for his senior season after scoring 28 goals in 2019. Alex Roberts, Nate Black, Brenner Gallagher and Clay Peters all boast significant varsity soccer experience to help bolster Velazco’s scoring ability.
Newcomers such as Jose Velazco, Gesser Aguilar and Nathan Behne boast plenty of immediate potential as well. Jose Velazco is a freshman with tremendous talent. The Rams are also bullish on freshman Gesser Aguilar, younger brother of Greene County’s all-time leading scorer, Junior Gutierres.
“We’ve still got a ton of potential this year, and I’m extremely, extremely excited,” Behne said. “Not just because we haven’t been on the field for basically a year and a half, since the state tournament, and (we are) wanting to get back on there. I’m excited for the boys and excited for the talent. All those pieces to the puzzle are there. They are chomping at the bit, even for our first scrimmage (which was held Saturday, March 27).”
To help curtail his athletes possible tendency to gravitate toward a feel-sorry-for-us state following last year’s cancellation, coach Behne pushed the guys to zero in on what they love about soccer. The coach initiated an open line of communication across the board, from the coaching staff down to the bench players, pushing them to watch soccer when they could, urging them to kick the ball around on their own.
With the natural multi-sport accessibility of a small-town school, the coach wasn’t too worried about his athletes falling out of shape. The Rams stayed active with football, cross country, wrestling and basketball over the last year. But, Behne openly admits, soccer fitness is different than most sports. The guys have to train for an 80-minute competition with no timeouts, little stoppage in action and only a brief halftime break.
The transition back to action has focused mainly on advanced fitness, in addition to general soccer Xs and Os.
“There are not many of our guys that are just ready to roll, day one, practice one,” Behne said. “We’ve been really focused on our conditioning. Not just making the guys run to run, but incorporating a heavy dose of fitness into every drill that we’re doing. There’s not any drill where (our guys) are just standing around, not moving.”
THE FAMILY PIPELINE
The Greene County Rams produce home-grown talent at a shocking rate. The soccer squad never seems to falter when it comes to on-field potential, and 2021 should be no different.
Luis Velazco is back to take the reins as the Rams most-heralded veteran, having tallied nearly 30 goals in 2019. He’s the first in line of a family duo that’s sure to put Iowa on notice.
Velazco’s elite output as a sophomore ranked him top 15 in 1A two years ago. He benefited greatly from Greene County’s pressing offensive attack, securing a number of goals off rebounds or second chance opportunities. The offense is now his to orchestrate as he pleases, stepping into the top spot as the traditional forward in the Rams’ 4-3-2-1 formation. It’s a bit of a tweak from the 2019 campaign of a more balanced attack but similar to the scheme Greene County implored in their inaugural year in 2018 when Leo Marques bullied opponents at the top.
Velazco’s intensity is what Behne feels sets him apart, as well as his knack for finding holes in the defense.
“He has the skill and the work ethic to get better each and everyday. I think the key for Luis has been and will continue to be, he just doesn’t give up,” Behne said. “He’s tenacious. He will fight for every ball. Eight to 10 of those goals (as a sophomore) were second or third chance opportunities where he was just always in the mix.
The tranistion into a single striker attack sets up well for Velazco, the coach believes. He’s more of a power player, unlike Gutierres’ finesse game.
“He’ll set the tone for us. He’ll be high on the radar for a lot teams,” Behne said. “They’ll put their best defender on him and spy him to try and take away his opportunities.”
Luis’ younger brother, sophomore Jose, is positioned perfectly for a resounding breakout this spring. Behne believes he’s just as talented, if not even better than Luis. The youngster has a similar passion for the sport, and he’s already provided glimpses of his talent, the coach said.
“He works as hard as Luis does, and so far, he’s putting the work in,” Behne said. “The sky’s the limit.”
Another notable relative, freshman Gesser Aguilar is the younger brother of Junior Gutierres. Behne is high on him as well, and believes the rookie even has potential to put up similar numbers to his older brother. The talent is surely there, and even if Behne knows his predictions sound a little crazy, he’s seen enough studs come through the program in the last few years to trust his instincts.
“I think (Gesser will) make a pretty quick name for himself. As hard as it is to believe with, a consistent effort and work ethic, he’s got all the potential in the world to be as good or better than Junior (was),” Behne said. “Which can blow your mind a little bit. But, as a freshman, I would say he’s at where Junior was as a sophomore, He commands the ball, he’s a little smaller than what Junior was as a sophomore, but he’s getting extremely strong. He probably has a stronger leg than Junior did as a sophomore. He’s just going to grow and develop more and more.”
Gutierres scored 19 goals as a sophomore, helping the Rams achieve 10 wins in their debut season.
TALENTED, BUT UNPROVEN
The Rams may be blessed with an embarrassment of riches in the talent department, but outside of five key veterans, Greene County is a rather young and inexperienced team. Stressful growing pains are in store for a starting lineup that boasts six players without a single varsity minute of playing time, anchored by three freshmen and a pair sophomores.
Behne expects a solid amount of teaching opportunities in the early going, but he certainly doesn’t doubt the potential. The influx of youngsters bodes well for the further development of the Greene County program.
“Being a young team, that’s going to come with this challenges, how do we fight back from that? How do we handle adversity,” Behne said. “At the same time, it gives me a lot of hope for not only this year but for future years, having talent coming in and the ability to work and grow and mature them over the course of the next four years.”
The trick, Behne said, is getting his youngsters ready for the pace of play at the high school level. It’s quite the shock to the system, the coach said.
“More than nerves, it’s just preparing them through practice for the difference of intensity (in game),” Behne said. “We have high intensity practices and really challenge each other, but at the end of the day, like in any sport, there is nothing like stepping on the field against a competitor that wants nothing more than to absolutely destroy you and walk away with a win.”
QUESTIONS IN GOAL
Freshman Gabe Ebersole is the favorite to take over the goalkeeper position, replacing the brick wall that was Cael Fisher, who graduated in 2020. Goalie is Greene County’s spot with the most doubt entering the spring slate. Behne did acknowledge the job is Ebersole’s to lose, but there are a few others who could come into play later. Inexperience and youth could foreshadow a slow start, defensively. Ebersole’s quick reflexes and an impressive vertical bode well for the youngster, Behne said.
The coach expects to witness a few bumps and bruises as the Rams work in a freshman at goalie. The jump in competition from the youth leagues to high school is perhaps the most glaring adjustment Ebersole will face.
“Offensive players have a better understanding of the game,” Behne said. “Other teams are going to have teams that know how to score. They are going to have stronger legs.
Not being in a constant state of ready is not going to be an option. All it takes is one little chip shot over the top and all of a sudden you’re in a one-on-one type situation. The pace and the intensity will be different.”
The Rams will boast a rather strong and experienced backline to help fold Ebersole and company into the mix. Nate Black and Brenner Gallagher will man the center back positions while Clay Peters will enter his third year as the starting right back, helping form a battle-tested, defensive core.
READY FOR THE BEST
Greene County views itself as a 1A powerhouse despite entering just its third year of existence. The Rams have tallied 24 wins in two seasons, bolstered by 181 goals and a single state tournament appearance. The Rams have loaded their schedule this spring to hopefully help support their ambition to stay among the state’s elite.
The Rams already have put Iowa on notice this year, defeating Class 2A 2019 state qualifier Storm Lake, 3-2 Saturday, March 27 during a scrimmage in Panorama. Storm Lake has won at least 16 games in each of the four seasons, reaching the state quarterfinals in 2019. Luis Velazco scored three goals to lead Greene County Saturday in their first meaningful action since June 2019.
The schedule is loaded with several important measuring sticks, beginning with this coming Saturday’s tournament in Perry, which will feature the Bluejays, a perennial state tournament contender as well as Class 3A’s Des Moines North. The Rams will also host Class 2A’s Ballard and Harlan in addition to Winterset. Greene County will participate in Nevada’s annual tournament May 8 with a chance to face Iowa City Regina and Marshalltown, a usual 3A power. Facing off against tough opponent’s is one of many ways Behne hopes his team can quickly improve as the season progresses. The coach would rather eat a few losses against elite competition then position theirselves for a perfect run against the lower tier.
“We scheduled strong for the reason of getting better throughout the year,” Behne said. “We certainly could have loaded our our schedule up with a lot of smaller 1A schools and, at the end of the day, probably had close to or had an undefeated season and then walked into the substate tournament with not a lot of valuable experience and opportunity to grow week-to-week.”