By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Most soccer coaches don’t want an extensive break during the season, especially coming off a district-opening loss.
But for the Stillwater High School boys and girls soccer teams, spring break came at a perfect time — giving both squads an opportunity to prepare for what will be the toughest stretch of the season, beginning Friday with the Stillwater Cup.
“The break came at a really good time for us,” Stillwater girls coach John Fields said. “We’re still going into the Stillwater Cup as a winning team. ... We put (the loss to Moore) behind us. We know that we put ourselves in little bit of a hole but we’re ready to dig out of it.”
“We trained two days during spring break and then I gave them a couple days off,” Stillwater boys coach Seth Condley said. “It was kind of good just to get away because we had been going at it pretty hard for about 10 weeks straight. ... This week we’ve been really focusing on finishing and attacking the final third, connecting our passes and being patient with the ball.”
After two weeks, the injuries have healed and the shots have started to find their targets. All that’s left now is for the whistle to blow and the ball to drop.
“Our expectation is to win the whole thing,” Condley said. “I think we’re at a point in time in our program where we expect to win every game and it should be nothing less. Three, four, five or six years ago, it probably wasn’t that way. We didn’t have the skill level, the talent, the commitment by the players to the team but this year, even though we’re 1-3, these guys are still committed and working hard. You see it in their eyes and their body language after wins or losses. We expect to win this thing again. That’s what we’ve been talking about, going in there and defending our championship.”
The Pioneers (1-3) may be the defending champions, but defending their crown won’t be an easy task. Not only do the Pioneers have the bull’s-eye of being the defending champions on their backs, but teams like Class 6A No. 2 Edmond Santa Fe and Class 4A No. 3 Santa Fe South will provide plenty of challenges for Stillwater. Condley said even the first-round game against Catoosa at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Stillwater Junior High School won’t be a cakewalk.
“Being the defending champions, it’s kind of nice because the guys do have a little chip on their shoulder to come back and defend it and be the first team in school history to win back-to-back tournament championships,” Condley said. “We do feel like we have a target on our back, but I think that’s good to be the one people are trying to beat. It should keep you on your toes and we should be a little more focused and have a little more edge to ourselves. I don’t talk about it much to them, but the guys talk about how they are the defending champions and they need to show up and be ready and do something that hasn’t been done before.”
The Pioneers aren’t the only ones feeling the pressure to succeed in the tournament.
A year ago, the Lady Pioneers (3-1) made it to the Stillwater Cup finals before falling to Verdigris on penalty kicks. Now, they’re hoping to keep the trophy in Stillwater this season as they look for redemption.
“We’re in a really good frame of mind right now,” Fields said. “We’re ready to go again. Last year we made it to the championship game, despite some really tough competition last year. We’re not scared of anybody by any means, but we try to prepare for each team. We kind of have an idea of how they play and we’re very much looking forward to it. We’re not worried, but I think the word to describe us is prepared.”
Stillwater may be anxious to get another crack at Verdigris, but there are other teams looking to get their own revenge — including Santa Fe South. Last year, the Lady Pioneers beat the Saints in the Stillwater Cup and Santa Fe South will look to return the favor as both teams open the tournament at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the junior high.
“Last year they struggled a bit, but this year they’re coming in as a team that’s going to give us a good game,” Fields said. “We beat them last year in the Stillwater Cup, so that gives them incentive to come in and do well against us. We’re not taking them lightly, by any means.
“We’ve also got Edmond Santa Fe. They’re struggling just a little bit, but that’s a team that went to the state playoffs last year. They won 11 games, so while they’re off to a slow start, they’re certainly a team to be reckoned with.”
Even if neither team can keep the title in Stillwater, Fields and Condley know that the experiences in the Stillwater Cup should pay dividends as they prepare for the rest of the district season and the playoffs.
“It gives us an idea of who is mentally ready to play and physically ready to play,” Fields said. “It also gives us an idea of which younger players might be able to help us through the rest of the season. The tournament does have a lot of value for us.”