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Local soccer players eager for action to begin

Simply by his nature, Ashland High boys soccer coach Abdiaziz Guled tries to look on the positive side of things.

So even in a pandemic-altered season where his Grizzlies are starting in March rather than in early September and have encountered a couple preseason speed bumps, Guled can’t help but be a little jazzed about what could be in store.

“(The players) just want to play the game,” Guled said. “The kids were so excited just to be able to kick the ball again and be able to be outside. Just being out there, they’ve been so energetic and so kind.”

The Grizzlies’ eyes have been fixed on their March 2 opener against Roseburg ever since their schedule was finalized.

But the process of returning to the field has not been routine.

Just as the Ashland got practices going earlier this month, the Grizzlies’ boys and girls soccer programs were forced to put all team activities on hold after three players tested positive for COVID-19, athletic director Karl Kemper said. Both teams returned to the field earlier this week after a two-week pause.

Despite the pause, Guled said that he expects his team to be ready to play Tuesday’s season opener against Roseburg in Ashland.

“Even if we get two or three games, we’ll take it. We’re glad with whatever we can get because, as you can see, we’re in a little bit of a different world right now,” Guled said. “You don’t know what you’ve had until you lose it, and that’s what we’re thinking right now. Let’s just enjoy this, and the players are really looking forward to playing games again.”

The Grizzlies’ schedule this spring will feature a combination of 6A and 5A schools, with the intention to keep things as local as possible and cut down on travel during the pandemic. Ashland will face regular Midwestern League rivals Crater and Eagle Point on top of facing North and South Medford and Grants Pass.

“I’m so glad we’re playing against the valley and we’re so fortunate to have this many teams around us so we don’t have to travel far,” Guled said. “It’s just good to have our own little group here and we’ll make the best out of it.”

Guled and the Grizzlies are coming off one of their best seasons in recent memory in 2019. Ashland, winner of the last three Midwestern League titles, finished 15-3-3 and advanced to the semifinals of the Class 5A playoffs. The Grizzlies’ season ended at the hands of Wilsonville, the same team that ousted them in the first round in 2018.

“I think that really helped us with momentum and getting the kids excited to play again,” Guled said of the semifinal run last season, adding that if the Grizzlies would have played their regular fall season they would have opened with Wilsonville. “They couldn’t wait to go again.”

Ashland graduated seven seniors from last season’s team, including all-state midfielder and Oregon Gatorade Player of the Year Scott Gustafson, a two-time MWL MVP who is now a freshman at the University of Washington.

The Grizzlies do, however, have five all-league honorees back from the 2019 squad.

Guled has plenty of experience in defense and expects that to be the backbone of a team that had the second-best defensive record in the MWL last season (13 goals allowed in 21 games).

Senior goalkeeper Gabe Giancarlo enters his third year as the Grizzlies’ starter, while his brother Rio Giancarlo is expected to be one of the Grizzlies’ starting fullbacks. Team captain Michael Holden and Kai Larson will hold things down in the center of the Ashland defense.

“We’ll start with defense and go from there,” Guled said with a laugh.

Also back are both of the Grizzlies’ starting forwards, senior Kona Makai and junior Davidson Graham, as well as midfielder Noah Aguilar. Makai was a first-team all-MWL pick in 2019, while Aguilar was a second-team honoree. Graham, a striker with speed to burn, has been one of the Grizzlies’ top goal-scoring threats since he was a freshman in 2018.

The Grizzlies’ defense is full of seniors and players Guled has seen grow up on the varsity level over the last couple of years.

“They’ve stuck with the program for so long, now they know the guys and they’re the guide and they want to help out and they know this is it for them,” Guled said. “They just want to play and make something special for themselves. This is one thing where they can just say, ‘At least I played soccer for my senior year.’ I have a good group (of seniors) and I think this will be successful for them this year.”

North Medford

Head coach Michael Belzberg is back for his eighth season after taking last year off to be with his newborn baby and is excited about the Black Tornado’s prospects. Although the team expects to experience some growing pains, North also returns three key figures in seniors Braden Byrd, Robert Valencia and Daniel Pineda.

Byrd was a first-team all-Southwest Conference selection last season after leading the Tornado in goals scored, showing a knack for creating and capitalizing on opportunities with good size and athleticism.

Valencia provides a steady complement to Byrd with his pressuring speed as an outside wing and earned honorable mention all-conference honors in 2019, while Pineda gives North solid leadership at center back as one of its more vocal leaders.

The Black Tornado graduated only five players off last year’s squad, which went 4-6-4 overall, and Belzberg said he likes the promise in the group he has this spring, as well as its aggressive tendencies.

“I don’t think this group is one of those teams who wants to defend for very long,” the coach said. “They want to attack. They want the ball and want to go forward and are extremely competitive.”

“They like to play fast and they like to attack,” Belzberg added. “That’s probably the two key areas for us: We want to go forward and we want to attack, and if we’re shooting and in the offensive third then I think things will be good.”

South Medford

With only three varsity starters returning — four overall off last year’s roster — South Medford has a tall task ahead of it but one that is exciting for head coach Claudio Villa.

“Imagine trying to find eight starters and 15 new players, it’s challenging,” he laughed.

The good news for the Panthers is that the season delay allowed for extra time to better identify players, with South Medford joining other local teams last fall for competitive league play.

“We’re a little bit young but we are very talented,” Villa said of what he learned from preseason games. “This is talent that I haven’t seen for years come through South Medford High School. Unfortunately we’re a little bit younger, but if we can play ball, at the end of the day whether you’re a 14-year-old freshman playing against an 18-year-old senior, if you have the right skills you can make it happen.”

Seniors Jude Pannell (goalkeeper) and Peyton Terry (center back) return as second-team all-SWC picks, and the Panthers get the benefit of having senior Ricky Esparza returning at striker. Junior Sam Edwards moves from a reserve role to center midfielder.

Pannell has been a fixture for South Medford since his freshman year and the 6-foot-4 standout was a driving force behind the Panthers allowing only 19 goals last season. Pannell, who also plays varsity basketball, split time between football and soccer growing up and Villa said he was fortunate to get him in the program as a freshman.

“The biggest advantage you have with basketball players is they have great hands,” Villa said, “so anytime we know there’s a basketball player that wants to play in goal we love it. If you have some time to work with them and build their foot skills, you can make it happen. He’s been a great asset to the program.”

Pannell’s natural talents and athletic skills allow him to shine as the backline leader, while the chemistry between Terry, Esparza and Edwards through years of playing club soccer together is evident and should help as younger players settle into their roles.

As a whole, Villa considers the league of local teams pretty balanced across the board and expects each game to be a challenge, as will making it through the six-week campaign.

“We’re playing an average of three games a week,” he said, “so the team that is not fit is going to struggle with injuries and fatigue.”

Crater

A year after having the worst record in the MWL in 2018, the Comets were able to double their win total a season ago and return much of their squad from 2019.

Crater graduated just four seniors from last season’s team that went 4-8-2 overall. The Comets, who finished sixth in the MWL, have been one of the youngest teams in the league the last couple of years.

“It started from basically tearing the building down all the way to the foundation and setting a new building on top of it,” Crater head coach Jason Tester said. “We changed everything these kids thought high school soccer was going to be about, and I started a culture by the way I coach and the way I set expectations for kids. We have just built on that.”

“Crater’s had a rough history with soccer. They had a few good years in the mid-2000s, but ever since then the season records have not shown any favor to what would be considered a winning program. I know our record doesn’t scream that we’re a top-ranked winning program at this point, but the improvements in the program, the belief in the kids, the dedication from the kids definitely says different. That’s been the biggest factor in all of this is that every single kid has been willing to buy in and given everything they have to get better.”

The Comets return a pair of all-MWL picks from last season’s team in central defender Logan Ball and Abe Hull, who will play as a central midfielder.

Tester also pointed to sophomore goalkeeper Diego Estrada as a player to keep an eye on.

“Most of the coaches you can talk to would probably agree with me saying it outloud, he’s very easily one of the better goalkeepers on this side of the state,” Tester said. “He’s a pretty big kid for being 15 years old and probably a little above-average size-wise for a sophomore in high school, but for that kid the sky’s the limit. He’s already got a ton of coaches all over him. The sky is literally the limit for him.”

Crater opens its nine-game schedule at Eagle Point Tuesday.

Eagle Point

The Eagles followed up their impressive turnaround in 2018 with an even better 2019 campaign, finishing in second place in the MWL behind league champion Ashland.

Eagle Point finished last season with the league’s best defense, as senior Giovanni Rodriguez earned the league’s goalkeeper of the year award.

Rodriguez was one of eight seniors to graduate.

“Luckily we’ve had a good flow of young talent coming in, but the downside right now with everything going on is that we’ve had quite a handful of kids actually opt out of playing,” Eagle Point head coach Juan Palomares said. “That’s really been our biggest struggle. But with the group we have left, I still think even though we’re running slim, we’re looking like we’re in pretty good shape.”

The Eagles’ lone returning all-league pick is senior midfielder Mathew Angel, who was a first-team honoree in 2019.

“I think he’s going to be the backbone to our season this year,” Palomares said.

Palomares also pointed to a freshman, Trenton Silani, who’s taking over in goal for Rodriguez, as a player to watch this season.

“The talent he has is right up there with Gio, and I think by the time he is a senior he could possibly even surpass him,” Palomares said of SIlani.

Helping the defense in front of the Eagles’ young goalkeeper will be senior central defender Elvis Cisneros, who returns to the program after missing the 2019 season.

Winger Brennen Neyt, a junior, has been moved into more of a central role in the attack as the Eagles hope to utilize his 6-foot-2 frame to their advantage.

“Elvis, he’s going to play a giant part for us on the defensive end,” Palomares said. “With Brennen’s size and his athletic ability, I think he will be able to do some damage up top.”

Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Ashland's Michael Holden and Churhill's Nabeel Akhtar fight for the ball during the first half of a game last season.