North Marion head coach Rafael Pelaez remembers nearly nine years ago to when he took over the Huskies boys soccer program.
After the long summer vacation, it was the first official day of fall practices, and he was excited to see the team he was going to be taking into the season in a few weeks.
Just three players showed up.
The Huskies went on to qualify for the state play-in round that year and since then, have qualified for the post season every year. The team put itself on the map with its first state championship in program history in 2014, and last year they returned to the 4A title game where they fell to the nearby Woodburn Bulldogs.
"What happened last year reaffirmed everything," Pelaez said.
Followers of high school athletics could have easily written off the 2014 title as a fluke, a one-time thing fueled by the right surge of talent in the program at the right time.
Last year's championship run proved otherwise. The Huskies went 9-2-1 in the final six weeks of the season, knocking off No. 4 La Grande and No. 1 Phoenix in the state playoffs to earn a coveted rematch with Woodburn.
The Bulldogs had beaten the Huskies 5-1 in the opening game of the season, and the North Marion players knew their cross-town rivals would be there at the end of the season if they could earn their way to the title game.
"Since Woodburn moved down, they knew Woodburn was going to make it," Pelaez said, referencing the Bulldogs' drop from 5A to 4A. "They were motivated just because Woodburn was there."
North Marion ultimately lost 2-0 in the championship, but the road to the title game brought back memories of 2014 and reenergized the program, both at the high school level and reverberating throughout the youth level.
The Huskies' youth soccer camp attracted 85 kids — many of whom are eager to be a part of the next North Marion title team. At the first day of fall practice this year, Pelaez had nearly 40 kids out — a far cry from the three who showed up in 2011.
"We're trying to prove we deserve to be up there, and last year wasn't a fluke," North Marion senior Renee Ramos said. "We're determined to show that we're up there."
After Woodburn won five titles at the 5A level, and one last year as a 4A team, the North Marion Huskies know that the cards are stacked against them in terms of competition level. The Bulldogs have the numbers and the pedigree.
"It's hard for us to compete against Woodburn," Pelaez said. "They're a bigger school. They have more choices for good players, plus students from other schools go to play with them.
"Individually, we are not like Woodburn," he continued. "We are strong as a group. For us, some working together with the rest of the group is how we become strong."
The Huskies have all the tools to get back to the title and turn the northern Marion County region into a showcase of soccer talent at the 4A level for years to come.
The team lost just three players from last year's second-place finisher. The entire defensive backfield returns, as does the front. The midfield lost its most talented players, but returning senior midfielder Bryan Trapala will be one of many athletes looking to prove that the team won't miss a beat this season.
"We've been working hard year round. I'm just excited to see us go far again," Trapala said. "It's a little sad knowing it's our last year and I won't be able to do this next year. I'm just going to give my best, give my team my best, give everyone my best and show what North Marion is about."
North Marion travels to Woodburn High School on Thursday at noon for a jamboree to kick things off. The Huskies officially open their season on Tuesday, Sept. 3 at Catlin Gabel. They play their first three games on the road and open at home on Sept. 19 against the Corvallis Spartans.
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