Constructing another champion
A crisp, overcast day covers the Woodburn High School soccer field with a comfortable cloud cover in early August.
It's a rare respite from the coming heat that is certain to blister the region as the 2019 fall athletic season quickly approaches.
While fall tryouts are still nearly two weeks away, the Woodburn boys soccer program still attracts more than 40 athletes on a Wednesday afternoon. Some, like former players Jesus Rodriguez and Reggie Reyes, are enjoying the opportunity to play with former teammates and coaches while preparing for the collegiate season.
Others, like Isaac Pureco and Riley Menezes, are heading into their senior season, looking to take over the leadership mantle after 11 members of last year's 4A state champions went the route of graduation.
Then there are those, like Gervais transfer Kevin Flores, who are striving to make the varsity roster and looking to capture the attention of Woodburn head coach Leroy Sanchez.
The Woodburn practice is a cornucopia of teenage boys, each with their own motivations, and it's up to Sanchez to sort them out into another champion.
"I think they know what's at stake and the pressure we have going in. These guys are all fighting for a spot in the program," Sanchez said.
Everyone wants to be a part of the next Woodburn title contender. The program, which has made every state playoff tournament since 1986, has experienced a renaissance in the past decade to the tune of state titles in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
After winning their first five titles at the 5A level, Woodburn High School moved to 4A last year and picked up their sixth. The Bulldogs know they have a target on their back. They've heard all the digs about playing down. The only thing they can do is respond with excellence.
"I think they know what's at stake and the pressure we have going in," Sanchez said. "We'll continue to have a target on our back. We'll continue to be the team to beat. We're going to have to welcome that and take every game as a state championship game."
Fall tryouts will see the roster balloon to nearly 80 athletes, putting the onus on Sanchez and his coaching staff to determine which 20-or-so players are the ones they want to take into the 2019 season.
With each athlete bringing subtle differences to the team, these August kickaround are an invaluable resource for Sanchez to learn more about the players, who they are as young men and how they respond on the pitch.
"It's fun atmosphere, but it's also a little bit of an intensity," Sanchez said. "I'm looking to see if some kids can read the game already, even if it's in an unrequired (practice)."
With each kickaround, Sanchez is able to learn more about his coming players. Who are the talkative ones? Who gets gassed after the first 45 minutes? Who makes precise passes and looks to set up open teammates? Every piece of information is valuable data that Sanchez is looking for, if not for now, then for several years down the road when the players passed over for varsity in 2019 will be called upon to represent the Bulldogs in 2020, 2021 or 2022.
"They know that I'm out here looking, and not only for what's next season, but in the future," Sanchez said. "I've already seen kids who are freshmen who are going to be the future of the program. I'm looking at that too."
But for now, the 2019 season is what's on everyone's mind. Even with 11 roster spots immediately up for grabs, the competition will be fierce. It won't be as simple as promoting the next 11-best junior varsity players from last year. New players like Flores come to Woodburn, looking to add their talent to the pool. Others who played elite soccer at the club level in 2018 are fighting for a spot. Even the team's six juniors and five sophomores that were on the roster last year are not guaranteed a spot if someone better beats them out.
"This program is going to attract a lot of kids that love soccer, and we're going to be here with open arms for whoeve3r wants to come in," Sanchez said. "The seniors are fighting for a spot on varsity, I like that. When you're losing 11 seniors and you're looking for spots, and you see that you have the talent here, it's just going to be down to putting the puzzle pieces together as the season starts."
It won't take long. Tryouts begin on Monday, Aug. 19. A week later, Sanchez and his staff will have their roster picked. By the end of the month, the season will begin.
Woodburn kicks off with a jamboree on Thursday, Aug. 29 and plays its first four games at home. In total, the Bulldogs play eight homes games and six road tilts, with the goal of three more state playoff games on their new home turf before fighting for their seventh title in November.
"That's going to be the message to them," Sanchez said. "We've got to play here and go all the way playing at home."
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