When you win your third state championship in five years, and you are named national champion by a national sports website, there’s little room for improvement.
Or, one would think.
The St. Paul’s soccer team is pushing the boundaries of the possible, however, midway through the 2015-16 season. The Wolves are ranked third in the U.S. by Maxpreps.com and are second in the state, according to the same site (as well as the LHSAA power rankings). They boast a 13-0-3 record and are 1-0 in the rigorous Division I, District 4 race, heading into Friday’s game against Northshore.
That’s impressive, if not familiar territory, considering St. Paul’s graduated 14 seniors and nine starters from the team that dominated opponents en route to a 30-0-3 last season.
The key this season, perhaps, has been St. Paul’s defense. Through 16 matches, it has allowed only five goals and three of those came off penalty kicks. Given that St. Paul’s has its usual assortment of offensive weapons to attack opponents, the combination has been potent.
St. Paul’s coach Sean Moser, a defender himself in his playing days, said good defense is contagious.
“We went the first seven or eight games without giving up a goal, and when another team did score, all we could talk about the next day was how to clean things up,” Moser said. “It was off a handball, but no one got down or pointed fingers. They said ‘We could have gotten back more quickly, and this never would have happened.’
“They are challenging themselves to be better than last year’s team, which gave up only nine goals.”
Four of the five defensive players are new starters. The lone returner is senior captain Austin Wiles, who moved from outside to center back. Others leading the defensive effort include fellow center back Michael Longo (a junior) senior outside backs Nick Isolani and Jonathan King and sophomore goalie Kyle Schmitt.
“It’s pretty much a brand-new back four, but all of them are upperclassmen,” Moser said. “I wasn’t worried about their athletic ability, but I wanted to see where their communication was early on.”
It turns out that the defense was in sync early and has allowed no more than one goal to an opponent this season. Each one allowed has been a bitter pill to swallow, though the team has used those times as learning opportunities.
“Every year we want to get better, and communication is key,” Longo said. “Having done what we did last year, that’s made us better. It’s motivation.”
“When we’re all on the same page, it’s not just about single people defending,” Wiles said. “It’s about everyone at every position doing it.”
As the youngest defensive starter, Schmitt has more than held his own in the net. He’s worked with Colin Hanley, St. Paul’s goalie and the state Gatorade Player of the Year last season, to improve his game. Hanley now plays for Niagra University in New York.
“He’s been a great mentor to me,” Schmitt said of Hanley. “During the summer, he gave me his college workout and some great advice. He’s pushed me to be better.”
Opponents have seen little drop-off from last year’s title team, though St. Paul’s knows it will have challenges ahead. District play always is formidable, and this year, rival Mandeville currently is ranked first in the state and second in the U.S. by Maxpreps.com. That’s extra incentive to stay sharp on defense.
“We have to take things game by game,” King said. “The state championship is the ultimate goal.”