PHIL HAWKINS - The North Marion boys soccer team wants to remain among the elite 4A programs in the state after a three-year run in which the team has gone 40-6-5, including 7-2 in the postseason and winning the 2014 state championship.
The North Marion boys soccer team lost an all-star team’s worth of talent last year. The Huskies graduated 11 seniors in June, including five all-conference selections and two all-state players — Aaron Caballero and Dennis Zapata — who graduated as some of the most prolific scorers in program history.
So it’s no surprise that the Huskies come into the fall season thinking…championship? No, really.
“The team is looking really good right now and we’re working on some things with new players, but I think it’s nothing a couple more practices can’t fix,” player Jair Cano said. “I’m just looking forward to starting the season, playing games and going for that title again.”
Cano, a senior, is a returning Second Team all-conference honoree at midfield for the Huskies. His senior class, which includes fellow Second Team midfielder/defender Ismael Carrillo, is among the most experienced North Marion has seen in ages.
The Class of 2017 has been to first round of the state playoffs in 2014, won a title in 2015 and advanced to the semifinals in 2016. Although the Huskies graduated a wealth of talent last spring, the returning Huskies know what it’s like to play deep in the playoffs and to compete at a high level of play.
“The main thing I love with the team I have now is that it’s a new team, but mentally they are ready,” Head Coach Rafael Pelaez said. “They know they can do it. They are capable. The only thing is that they have to work hard, and they’re doing it. They want to be prepared.”
Pelaez enters his sixth year as head coach after taking over the program in 2011 and has seen the attitude change among players entering the program. The Huskies have gone from fringe playoff contender to one of the premier 4A programs in the state over the past three years, which Pelaez credits in part to the legacy that former players have left behind.
“People coming in, they trust it now, because the other kids built something,” Pelaez said. “They say they’re going to work as hard as they can, because they know that North Marion has a team and they want to go.”
That trust in the program and the system that Pelaez and the Huskies have built will be put to the test this year as the team works to remain a title contender while bringing in a new class of players. In addition to Cano and Carrillo, North Marion features returning seniors Gerardo Maldonado (midfield/forward) and Andres Zurita (defender).
The Huskies also bring forward Gabriel Pizzuti to the program, who has studied abroad for his high school career, but returns to North Marion for his senior season. Pizzuti played with Carrillo and Cano in middle school and has experience playing in Europe for the past several years, including most recently in France in U19 leagues.
It was extremely difficult over there,” Pizzuti said. “It’s pretty similar, but the players are more mature, and every single player has played together year round with each other since they were little.”
Pizzuti brings an athletic presence to the front of the field, will inject offense into North Marion and should be a key replacement for Caballero and Zapata, the top two single-season scorers in program history.
“That’s what I did in France and what I’ve been doing, so I’m looking forward to scoring a lot of goals this year for our team,” he said. “We have a pretty young team this year. I think that’s really good for our team, because all these young players that are coming in that are going to be on varsity… they’re going to be playing against the varsity, which is going to give them good experience.”
Among those younger players is sophomore Edgar Lopez, who played significant time as a freshman on defense and in the midfield for the Huskies last year.
“Our defense — they’re freshmen, but they also have a really great player with them in Ismael who can show them how to work hard and be aggressive,” Lopez said. “Right now I think everyone’s doing really well. We just need to learn how to communicate a little bit more to try to win that title.”
The communication, aggressive play and skill needed to win a championship can and will come in time. That’s the easier part. What is harder is preparing a team mentally to be champions, which is something Pelaez can see in this year’s team.
“They might have the skills, but if they’re not ready mentally, it’s going to be an issue,” he said. “But now, they are, and they actually believe they can make it.”
North Marion opens the season Aug. 31 against the Seaside Seagulls. The Huskies’ home opener is scheduled for Sept. 8 against the Gladstone Gladiators.
North Marion boys soccer
Coach: Rafael Pelaez
Last year: 14-2-1 (8-1-1 Oregon West, 2nd)
Key losses: Aaron Caballero (1st Team all-state/league, F); Dennis Zapata (2nd Team all-state, 1st Team all-league, F); Oscar Ruiz (1st Team all-league, D); Alexis Gomez (HM all-league, M/F); Rodrigo Gonzalez (HM all-league, D/M)
Key returners: Ismael Carrillo, Sr. (2nd Team all-league D/M); Jair Cano, Sr. (2nd Team all-league, M)
Story and Picture by Phil Hawkins, Woodburn Independent. Click HERE for online version.