Boys Soccer: Championship legacy continues to fuel North Marion
It's been nearly three years since the North Marion boys soccer team's historic run to the 4A state title in 2014, yet the ripples created that season are still being felt on the fields surrounding the high school's athletic campus.
"When I came here, the first practice we had was three kids," said Huskies head coach Rafael Pelaez. "Since we started doing better, the program has been growing a lot."
Except for Pelaez himself, no one remains from the 2014 state championship roster. But the impact from that season continues to reverberate within the program. Unlike Pelaez's first season in 2011, more than 30 players came out the team's first practice this season. None of the players were part of the program's title team, but most have all played with someone from that team, and the expectations that grew from earning that trophy are passed down from year to year like a family heirloom.
"Winning league, winning state — that's our goal," junior forward Edgar Lopez said.
"Winning state," sophomore defender Rene Ramos echoed. "Trying to be the best we can be."
In the aftermath of the title, the Huskies have enjoyed their best three-year stretch of soccer in program history. Since 2014, North Marion has been to the championship game, the semifinals and the quarterfinals, with a record of 23-5-2 in the Oregon West Conference and 40-9-4 overall.
After losing 12 seniors to graduation, last year's team was primed for a letdown of a season, and in a sense, they had one. The Huskies finished third in the league standings and had to play all of their postseason games on the road.
But the team still thrived.
Senior defender Ismael Carrillo was named Conference Player of the Year. Lopez led the team with five goals in a dominating play-in win over Sweet Home. The team upset No. 6 Tillamook on the road. North Marion finally bowed out of the playoffs in a 3-0 loss to the eventual-champion Newport Cubs.
"Now they have the mentality around here that we can win," Pelaez said. "Before? They didn't believe we can be winners over here at North Marion in soccer, because they said we haven't done anything."
This year, those expectations have not gone away. If anything, they've intensified. The team survived what should have been its down year and returns to once again challenge the conference elite for a league title.
Lopez leads the way after enjoying a breakout season as a sophomore, where his big game against Sweet Home capped a season in which he led the team with 23 goals to earn Second Team All-State consideration.
"Edgar is helping out a lot," Pelaez said. "He's now thinking like a big guy; he's taking responsibility. He knows the team is kind of on his shoulders."
Carillo's absence will be the biggest blow to the Huskies, but Pelaez has found his replacement in senior transfer Ronaldo Ortiz. A former member of the Woodburn Bulldogs, Ortiz has the size and athleticism to serve as a formidable last line of defense along the Huskies' back line. He came to North Marion in the middle of the 2016-17 school year and is looking forward to playing for a more intimate soccer program after coming over from Woodburn.
"It's a big difference from tryouts, since it's like 100 kids over there in Woodburn and like 30 or 40 over here," Ortiz said. "I like it because it's so much smaller that they focus on everybody little by little. They look into the detail because there's so many kids that they can actually focus on. "
Ortiz adds to a defensive line that includes all-conference seniors Elvis Gomez and Gabriel Zurita, along with Ramos, an up-and-coming sophomore that Pelaez favorably compares to Carrillo.
"He's very good," Pelaez said. "That kid improved. The only one doing the same way was Ismael."
The last line of defense will be senior keeper Abe Cervantes, who missed all of last season due to a preseason injury. He'll split time with sophomore Colby Gianella, with Cervantes getting the lion's share of the time at the net.
"We're a defensive team," Ortiz said. "Everybody knows how to defend — that's where we try to focus on first."
The Huskies open the season Thursday at home against Seaside, one of four non-conference games the team will play before diving into the Oregon West with a league-opener against the defending champions from Newport.
The Oregon West Conference has become a breeding ground for title contenders, fielding three different teams in the 4A championship game in as many years. This year's fight for the league title will be just as difficult as previous years, with a three-team fight between the Huskies, Cubs and the ever-present Stayton Eagles.
But the North Marion players know they repeat as league champions, because they've already done it before. After a slight step back last season, the Huskies are ready to once again make a run at a state title in 2017.
"The mentality changed over here," Pelaez said. "Now they believe we can win at any sport."
North Marion Boys Soccer
Coach: Rafael Pelaez
2016: 9-6-2 overall, 6-3-1 Oregon West Conference (3rd); Lost in 4A state quarterfinals
Key losses: Ismael Carrillo (Conference Player of the Year, 1st Team All-State, D); Leonel Claudio (1st Team All-League F); Jair Cano (2nd Team All-League F); Andres Zurita (2nd Team All-League D)
Key returners: Edgar Lopez, Jr. (2nd Team All-State F); Elvis Gomez, Sr. (Honorable Mention D); Gabriel Zurita, Sr. (Honorable Mention D)