BOYS’ SOCCER: BATTLING ADVERSITY
By BRANDON HURLEY
GRAND JUNCTION – Chance McCollom seized his opportunity.
The senior engineered a gritty, come-from-behind victory April 12, capping a five-day whirlwind of emotions, sending the Greene County boys’ soccer team back over the .500 mark.
McCollom was the benefactor, scoring two goals, including the equalizer and one final insurance-netter, helping the third-ranked Rams to a tough 3-1 win over Ballard in their home-opener.
Greene County, playing in its fifth straight game against an opponent at least one class above, were in action for the first time without their leading goal-scorer, Luis Velazco.
The short-handed Rams fell behind quickly, surrendering a penalty kick goal in the opening seven minutes caused by an inadvertent hand ball. Suddenly, Ballard, who hadn’t scored a single goal in its four previous games entering Monday’s contest, possessed a shocking lead. The Class 2A Bombers had been outscored 27-0, including back-to-back 10-0 defeats to open the year, losses to 14th-ranked Nevada and second-ranked Dallas-Center Grimes. Greene County was Ballard’s fourth ranked opponent out of five teams faced this spring.
Ballard certainly didn’t feel like a winless and scoreless ball club, putting an early scare in the Rams during their home-opener.
McCollom and company quickly responded. The newly-minted striker poked home the equalizer seven minutes later, allowing Greene County head coach Carl Behne a chance to relax a bit.
“The boys definitely got an unlucky bounce (with the hand ball in the box) and we were nervous at first how quickly it happened. Other than that, it really was the only true opportunity Ballard had,” the coach said. “(We) knew Ballard hadn’t scored. We responded very well. We felt like when we leveled it up, from that point on, the boys had the ground back underneath them and we were going to be good.
I was glad it didn’t take long to respond.”
McCollom wasn’t quite done following his game-tying goal, helping securing victory in the second half, receiving a beautiful, over-the-top, high-arcing pass from Nathan Behne, before punching in his second goal in the 55th minute, providing Greene County with all the cushion it would need, going up 3-1.
Ballard did put a bit of pressure on the Rams’ defense in the final 10 minutes, but never made much of a threat to actually score.
It was a gritty win, anchored by McCollom’s breakout. The senior now has three goals this spring with quite the opportunity in front of him. As the Rams’ newest striker moving forward, McCollom has blossomed from a scrawny freshman to a well-built veteran with speed and power.
“It’s a combination of confidence in himself, he’s put the work from a lifting standpoint, and just an overall, work ethic,” Behne said. “He’s a great kid. He works hard with all the things he does, especially outside of sports. Soccer is something he’s loved.”
McCollom was nearly crippled with self-doubt as a freshman, and even considered giving up on soccer, but he stuck with it following a meaningful discussion with Behne. The coach let the youngster know he’d have a shot if he gave the sport another chance.
“He pretty clearly took (that) to heart,” Behne said. “I think he would have been much improved even last year, but he’s physically and mentally grown as a young man. I’m really proud of him and really proud of the effort.”
Behne believes McCollom’s growth isn’t done yet. Potential for a smattering of goals, more victories and an even grander breakout is on the horizon.
“He knows there are some opportunities with (his) footwork, but that’ll come,” Behne said. “He just hasn’t been in those (situations) very often with game type decision-making. But he’s really going to carry a pretty big load up top for us.”
Greene County’s immediate point of emphasis, on-field wise, is improving its passing. The Rams have displayed above average vision, but haven’t quite connected with some of their efforts. Behne envisions crisper passing, not only taking chances at a through ball, but completing it. That type of consistency will open up the offense and allow for more scoring opportunities.
“We’ve had a lot of through balls that ended up nicking either our player or slamming into the back of an opponent the last couple of matches,” Behne said. “We’re seeing it, we’re just not executing. That’s some of the stuff we’re going to focus on.”
A SEASON DEDICATED
Greene County suffered a significant blow despite their shutout victory over Carroll April 8.
The Rams’ leading-scorer, Luis Velazco left the game with a serious leg injury in the closing seconds of the first half in the Rams’ 3-0 win in Carroll, suddenly sending third-ranked boys’ squad in scramble mode. The senior, who chipped in nearly 30 goals in 2019, was a one-man scoring machine through four games this spring. He was responsible for six of Greene County’s nine goals entering Monday’s contest with Ballard (the sixth-most goals prior to April 12th’s slate of games), including 10 total shots and eight shots on goal.
Velazco was tasked with anchoring a relatively young but talented Rams attack, a unit with hopes of eventually reaching the state tournament again.
The leg injury, which likely knocked Velazco out for the remainder of the season, was a shock to the entire Greene County program. Gone is a guy almost guaranteed to score every time out, having notched at least one goal in every game he played this spring, including two goals in the first half against Carroll. Velazco’s loss is a huge loss, both strategically and emotionally.
“It was very emotional (last week), we waited almost 20 minutes for the ambulance to arrive, there was a big gap and we had played well in that half,” Behne said. “Having that emotion, knowing (Luis) is a senior, wanting the best for him, they bounced back well last week.
It’s very clear the reminder of the season (we are) playing for Luis in his honor and for how hard he worked.”
Greene County still is jam-packed with talent, but it’s most experienced goal-scorer is no longer available. Velazco’s experience and exceptional pace likely had him headed toward an all-state honor as a leading force for a potent offensive attack. Now, the Greene County boys’ must look elsewhere for scoring.
Alex Roberts is the only Ram on the current roster who had scored prior to this spring, chipping in two goals as a sophomore in 2019.
McCollom has been impressive through two weeks of action, chipping in three goals while Velazco’s younger brother, Jose, has shown flashes of his remarkable speed and ball-handling, scoring once Monday following an array of delectable moves, punching in his second goal of the spring. Freshman Gesser Aguilar has potential to score as well.
“From an on field leadership standpoint we have Alex Roberts on top and we have Nate Black and Clay Peters as leaders on the backline, we are sitting pretty well still,” Behne said. “From a skillset, on the bench there’s no one there like Luis. I think we’ve got solid positions, but for us, it will be finding the right fit up top. Chance has proved to be that right fit.”
The timing of Luis’ injury, while certainly never a moment to glorify, was fortunate, Behne said. It’s better to have a few months to adapt as a team than to quickly find answers mere days before postseason play. It’s time for Greene County to prove their resiliency and showcase its depth. The unit must work together as a team, realizing there’s little room for error. For the first time in three years, the Rams won’t have a clear-cut superstar able to shoulder the load.
“It’s definitely not a one or two guy show (offensively) we can lean on. (We) won’t have that 3-4 goal lead (as much) when you could give up a silly goal,” Behne said. “Those days of quick, rapid scoring, they aren’t completely gone, but it’s going to be tougher (for us). We don’t have that luxury and it forces some guys to step up.
I would’ve much rather had Luis on the field, but having him bow out early sets up with for much better success instead of that shock (late in the season).”
TOUGH SCHEDULE PAYS OFF
Greene County earned a No. 3 ranking in the Iowa High School Soccer Coaches Association’s week one Class 1A list last week despite a 2-2 record. The Rams had yet to play a team from Class 1A, knocking off Class 2A’s Carroll, Perry and Ballard while suffering defeats at the hand of 2A’s Humboldt and Class 3A’s Des Moines North.
“I think by and large, when you play the bigger schools, they have more kids to draw from, they have a faster, bigger mentality, for us to compete against them and win, (it) bodes well for us,” Behne said. “I told the boys, I don’t care if we finish (the regular season) .500, if we are getting better and better each week,
Greene County’s elite ranking marks the third straight year the Rams have been ranked at some point during the season. The Rams (5-2) are now ranked 11th in IHSSCA's week three rankings.