BOYS SOCCER PREVIEW: Lumberjacks rebuild with plenty of talent
The Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys soccer team reached the section final last season with an experienced group of players -- and hopefully reloads for another run this fall thanks to a very talented junior class.
The Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys soccer team reached the section final last season with an experienced group of players - and hopefully reloads for another run this fall thanks to a very talented junior class.
And just as soon as this year’s edition learns to play with the same edge as previous Lumberjacks teams, the stage is probably set for even more success.
CEC lost 3-1 on Aug. 25 to a Columbia Heights team it beat last season - a wakeup call for Archie Clark’s players right out of the chute.
“The game wasn’t dissimilar to last year,” Clark said. “They (the Hylanders) were skilled but certainly beatable. We just didn’t have that physical or mental toughness to deal with them on our field. I’m actually a bit disappointed at how we came out.”
Despite that talented junior class, CEC’s best player is most likely a sophomore: Kade Bender led the scoring charts last year and scored the team’s goal against Columbia Heights with an audacious 40-yard lob when he caught the opposing keeper too far off his goal line.
“He (Bender) added five to 10 pounds of muscle and didn’t lose a step,” Clark said. For a 10th-grader he is physically very imposing, with wide shoulders, and he’s big and strong. He sees the field like nobody else.”
Bender’s physicality and size gives Clark plenty of options as to how and where to play him.
“He’d be great in the midfield, but we have lots of players with good touch of the ball there,” Clark said. “He’s our only natural finisher, though, so that means he plays in the box.”
There, Bender’s size allows him to act as a target man, taking passes from teammates and either using his vision to find scoring opportunities for others, or beating his man off the dribble to find space for a shot himself.
Bender can also play with his back to goal in a manner similar to a basketball player in a high post position, using his strength to hold up the ball while his teammates make runs to create space. When he turns toward goal with the ball, the offense moves right along with him.
“One of his best skills is to turn and see where pressure is coming from,” Clark said. “Having his back to goal is the best way for him to play.”
That said, Clark said the team misses Robbie Sobczak in midfield.
“He was a force,” Clark said. “He played with everything he had every minute, and this team has to learn that. The Columbia Heights game might be a wakeup call for us. These guys think they’re pretty good, and that brought us back down to earth. But they can be pretty good if they learn to be physical.”
The team’s talent and skills will allow Clark to consider up to three different tactical formations depending on the opponents - the team’s standard 3-5-2 formation, with two of the five midfielders functioning as wing backs to allow for width and overlap in attack; a standard 4-4-2 alignment played by many teams around the world; and a 4-5-1 alignment using Bender as a single striker and providing greater defense in depth.
“They can play a lot of different ways,” Clark said. “Our players take as much pleasure at making a great pass as they do in scoring a goal, so whether Kade scores a goal or lays off a pass for a teammate, it makes no never mind to him.”
Senior Jay Boder will get the goalkeeping chores for the team.
“He has paid the price in the program for a long time and he’s one of our captains,” Clark said. “Unless we’re way ahead late in the game, I don’t see him coming off.”
Still, Clark would like to see more physicality from his team as an integral element of success.
“They were terrific until Columbia Heights, when they looked tight and afraid to make a mistake,” Clark said. “You can’t play that way. You have to be loose and let it flow. I’m looking for them to find their physical toughness and not let other teams dictate the tempo. You can do that with shoulder charges and legally putting other players off the ball. The earlier we remember how to do that, the better off we will be.”
Finding their stroke will need to come quickly - nearly one-third of the team’s schedule will be complete before school even starts, as CEC has four games scheduled this week, a potentially exhausting schedule which will require players to save their legs.
But success early on will make the Lumberjacks formidable again at the end of the season.
“I would think we are right up there,” Clark said. “Everyone discounts Hermantown but they have good leaders, Denfeld is good, Marshall has some very skilled young kids, Chisago Lakes is good and who knows what Grand Rapids and Hibbing have.”