The Beautiful Game
Given the past decade of excellence for
the Woodburn boys soccer program, it's somewhat difficult
to believe that at one point, they were like many other high school teams across the state of Oregon.
The Bulldogs were a consistently competitive school that was unable to claim an elusive state championship. The Bulldogs had made the state playoffs every year since 1986, advancing to and losing title games in '87, '88 and '98, but were never able to get over that mountain.
Woodburn head coach Leroy Sanchez was a freshman on that 1998 team that lost 3-0 to La Salle in the 3A/2A/1A championship. Sanchez never again reached those heights as a player but knew that one day the Bulldogs would get there.
"Just getting that taste of being at the top and coming so close, I just feel it was a matter of time," Sanchez said. "Part of this is destiny. We'd gotten there so many times, so close."
More than two decades later, Sanchez is now a counselor and social worker at Woodburn High School and a four-time high school state championship soccer coach — once as an assistant and three times as a head coach.
It was the second of his titles as a head coach, a 2-0 win over North Marion in the 2018 4A State Championship game, that garnered the attention of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association, which selected Sanchez as the 2018-19 Northwest Section Boys Soccer Coach of the Year in January.
The award encompasses high school coaches from across Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon Washington and Wyoming, selecting its winner based on criteria such as coaching philosophy, community engagement, win-loss record, as well as state championships.
"It's humbling," Sanchez said. "It makes me feel good, obviously, but I don't just see this being an award that's mine. I have other coaches that are with me, my players, all of it together. It's not just myself. It's a team of us that makes this happen."
To put it succinctly, it's an award to Woodburn.
"That's how I see it," he said.
Beginning of an era
Since 2010, the Woodburn High School boys soccer team has won seven titles in 10 years. Five have come at the 5A level, and the past two have come against 4A competition.
Sanchez sees the award as the cumulative recognition to all the coaches and players that came before him. The familial ties that bind teams from season-to-season are too numerous to list. Players graduate, and younger brothers enter the program, picking up where they left off. Cousins, second cousins, even uncles and nephews — Woodburn soccer is family.
That extends to the coaching staff as well, where former head coach Luis Del Rio won Woodburn's first two state titles in 2010 and 2011.
"Coach Del Rio and his assistant are uncles of mine," Sanchez said. "They started it."
Even where there are no blood ties, that family connection lives on throughout the program, the bond of growing up, living and playing in Woodburn. The Bulldogs are a homegrown commodity and, as such, carry a level of pride that the current era of excellence is built entirely on the combined effort of the community.
"It's a beautiful story to have some of it homegrown," Sanchez said. "My assistant coaches right now — same, homegrown. Two of them played at the high school for four years."
Continuing the success
Sanchez credits much of his success to the man who came before him.
Following a third state title in 2012 with former head coach Carlos Horcos at the helm, former Woodburn teacher and head boys soccer coach Stan Baker led the Bulldogs for four years from 2013-16. Taking over the program following three straight championships, Baker was tasked with keeping Woodburn a championship-caliber program and tapped Sanchez as one of his assistants.
Baker and Sanchez shared several ties.
Baker was the former head coach at Forest Grove High School in the early 2000s, coaching against the Bulldogs when Sanchez was a student-athlete at Woodburn.
As colleagues at WHS, the two would spend their free time talking soccer. Baker and Sanchez were both fans of FC Barcelona and the European-style of play that focuses on ball control and precision passing.
"It was a good relationship," Sanchez said. "I told him I really didn't know anything about coaching. I know the game, and I know how to play it, and I wore a captain band, so if you feel like I can be a sponge and learn from you, I'd be happy to take it on."
What Sanchez lacked in coaching experience, he made up elsewhere. Being from Woodburn gave Sanchez insight into the players coming up through the system. He knew how important soccer was to the community and understood how much work the student-athletes put in on their way up through the system, fighting for that prestigious spot on the varsity roster.
"Coach Baker believed in me," Sanchez said. "He took me under his wing and he showed me what it's about. He gave me a philosophy. He gave me a blueprint of how to take this and what system to run."
Baker also showed showed how difficult it was to win a state title, even for a veteran coach with more than two decades of experience.
Woodburn continued to play elite-level soccer under Baker, extending its streak of consecutive league championships each year under his watch. But the streak of titles came to an end.
The Bulldogs fell in the semifinals in 2013 and 2015. In between, the team returned to the state championship in 2014 but lost 2-0 to Hood River Valley. It was the first loss in a state championship game for the boys soccer team since Sanchez's 1998 team.
"It was tough to have that kind of pressure and having to win one," Sanchez said. "Some people think it's really easy to win a state championship, but that's the culture of the community — to believe in this program, believe in this team. They want a winning culture, so you have to perform here every year."
Woodburn finally returned to the promised land in 2016, beating Wilsonville 1-0 in the 5A state championship to claim its first state title in four years. But the elation would not last long.
Baker left the program to pursue other opportunities, and the hiring committee to find his successor picked Sanchez to take over as head coach. At 33-years old, Sanchez was tasked with taking over one of the best soccer programs in the state, coming off its fourth title in seven years.
It was an incredible opportunity, but one that came with extraordinarily high expectations, a high degree of difficulty, and a lot of anxiety.
"It did come with fear. It did come with anxiety. It did come with having to get into this situation where you have to continue this success," Sanchez said. "What do I know? Am I really ready for this? Do I have the tools?"
Sanchez drew inspiration from a variety of sources.
He credits Woodburn Athletic Director Chad Waples for his trust and support, giving him the confidence needed to take the helm. He credits his players, who perhaps more than anyone, knew what that pressure felt like to win another state championship. He credits his family — wife Sandra and children Thiago and Lysandro — for his emotional support.
"To say anxiety has been there? Absolutely. Stress? Absolutely. Insecurities about it at the start? Sure," he said. "(but) it was strength and belief and love and respect and relationships that got us through it."
Sanchez and the Bulldogs rose to the challenge.
Woodburn finished third in the conference standings in the 2017 season, its streak of six consecutive league titles coming to an end. But the team persevered, winning every playoff game on the road, including an unforgettable semifinal game that was decided by penalty kicks against La Salle — the team that beat Sanchez for the state title 20 years earlier.
The Bulldogs went on to defeat league rival Corvallis 2-1 in the championship game, delivering Sanchez the state title as a head coach that had eluded him as a player.
The following year, Woodburn moved to the 4A Classification and returned nearly every starter from its title team, putting further pressure on Sanchez and the Bulldogs. Anything short of a title would have been a failed season.
"We had to do what we had to do," Sanchez said. "Keep working and keep playing, and getting in that pressure cooker of being in 4A — almost having to guarantee state championships.
"It takes a toll on you; it takes a toll on the players."
Woodburn swept through the playoffs, going four straight games without giving up a goal, including its 2-0 win over North Marion in the championship game for the Bulldogs' third consecutive title.
Heading into the 2019 season, Sanchez and the Bulldogs had the opportunity to add a fourth-straight championship to their resume. It was a rare feat only accomplished twice in Oregon high school boys soccer — by Jesuit from 1991-94 and by Catlin Gabel, which won five titles from 1988-92. But no public school had ever won four straight boys soccer titles, and Woodburn was determined to become the first.
Sanchez and the Bulldogs drew on an unexpected source of inspiration. The Woodburn girls soccer team, led by head coach Andrea Whiteman, had advanced to the 2019 title game along with the boys. The girls went on to beat Marist 1-0 for the first girls athletics title in WHS history, fueling the boys to follow suit.
"The girls honestly set the precedent for the boys coming in," Sanchez said. "They showed us what we needed to do. This (was) a sign for us to have to come in and take one, make history together.
The boys team followed suit, defeating Stayton 1-0 less than two hours after the girls' game, giving Woodburn a rare sweep of the 4A soccer championship games.
"Doing it together, having it come from Woodburn, you couldn't ask for a better story."
Entering his fourth season as head coach, Sanchez is taking his program's success in stride. He continues to work in the off season, scouting upcoming middle school teams, taking account of equipment and jerseys, looking at club players within Woodburn that could become members of the high school team this fall.
After a two-year stint at the 4A level, Woodburn boys soccer is scheduled to move back to 5A. The Bulldogs have an opportunity to join Catlin Gabel as the lone boys soccer program in state history to five straight titles. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a Woodburn native in Sanchez, who carries the weight and expectations of a community on his shoulders.
"These emotions, these memories that you're taking with you for the rest of your life," Sanchez said. "I honestly feel I'm living some of the best years of my life right now and I'm trying to soak this in, because you never know how long this will last."
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