Not long after the Madras boys soccer team lost the 4A boys state title game last season, players began to process what happened.
On one hand, the season had been the White Buffalos' most prosperous campaign to date. Their perfect 10-0 Tri-Valley Conference mark catapulted them into the 4A state playoffs as a No. 4 seed, and, after home playoff wins against the likes of Mac-Hi, La Grande and Brookings-Harbor, the Buffs earned the right to play Newport in the title game — their first-ever appearance on that stage.
The Buffs did everything right except win it all, head coach Clark Jones said, which is why they had no choice but to consider the season a success.
But the way their season ended — a hard-fought 1-1 draw going into extra time that Newport ultimately won on penalty kicks — soured everyone who played a part in the Buffs' season.
"I don't think there was a single person in the stands or on the sideline that was happy with what the result was last year," Jones said.
Once the sting of the loss lessened, players began asking themselves what they could improve on going into next season. One of them, Andres Acuna, knew it was time to step up as a leader.
As a sophomore last year, Acuna said he messed around at the start of the season and at times, didn't take games as seriously as he should have. Knowing that the Buffs would be losing all three captains and crucial leaders — Omar Dominguez, Obed Eriza and Miguel Alonso — to graduation, Acuna approached Jones in the offseason and declared that he wanted to become a captain. Jones said he never had a player do that before.
"Losing that state final made me realize I should have taken it more seriously, you know?" Acuna said. "This year, I wanted to be more of a leader and get us back to that state final (and) come out actually winning it."
In turn, Jones told Acuna that he needed to become a role model, someone that the team can lean on at all times, in order to earn the captain's arm band. Acuna did what his coach asked of him, and he has joined seniors Jonathan Reynoso and Tony Sanchez to round out this year's captains.
Their task is to replace a group of charismatic senior leaders from last season, easier said than done, although each of them appears to be comfortable doing so.
"When leaders leave, it's up to you to fill that spot and lead the team in a way that others feel like they can't or they just don't want to," Sanchez said. "So you have to feel comfortable in order to keep the team going forward."
Working to the Buffs' favor, however, is the fact that a hungry group of players is returning, some with starting varsity experience, others who have swung up from JV to varsity. Jones estimates he has between 25 and 28 kids who are capable of playing varsity, but only a maximum of 22 will make the team. That reality has created a strong level of competition through two and a half weeks of practice, which has benefited the whole team.
"What I've found is that this group of kids is very hungry," Jones said. "They've put a lot of work in (during) the offseason, playing a lot together, and they've been successful."
Their hunger and hard work starts with Reynoso, the reigning 4A boys soccer Player of the Year, who is known as a quiet, lead-by-example type, but has also proved to his teammates and coaches time and again that he can speak up when necessary.
"Just confidence," said Reynoso of the key to this year's success. "I think we have the players and everything. We made it there once; we should be able to make it again."
That isn't to say Reynoso, nor anyone else, is even close to thinking about another trip to state. After all, the Buffs have missed the playoffs just once in Jones' eight-year tenure, but hadn't advanced past the semifinals until last season.
But now that they've made it once and seen the path to get there all the way through, the Buffs know what they must do in order to return.
"To make that leap, and go to the next one, we know what the formula is," Jones said. "You take care of business in the regular season, you play as many playoff games as possible at home and good things are going to happen."
Teams don't always forget heartbreaking endings to past seasons easily. So far, the Buffs have said all the right things. They've practiced with focus and sharpness. Most importantly, they appear to have moved on from last year. Now, they just need to step on the field and get to work.
"The memory is still there, but we're gonna have to get past that," Acuna said. "We have a new season coming up, so hopefully we can just do the same thing we did last season and hopefully become the actual champions."
Madras begins its season on Thursday with a home match against Ridgeview. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.