Chagrin Falls boys soccer had one of those once-in-a-decade classes, at least for a public school, during the Tigers’ 15-3-1 campaign last season that garnered a No. 2 ranking in the state.
Fourteen seniors, including eight starters, three of whom were first-team all-Cleveland honorees in Division II, led the program to its first district title game in five years, as the Tigers lost a 1-0 overtime battle against Revere, which went on to finish state runner-up.
But that next once-in-a-decade class appears to have arrived sooner than expected for Chagrin Falls, as the 2019 Tigers have nine junior starters who have reloaded the pitch with talent and versatility for third-year head coach Brian McKenna.
“These juniors have played together for years with travel, so they’re very familiar with each other,” he said. “That was a big help coming into the season. Only two, though, have been a varsity starter. So, that was a concern I had coming in.
“But they’ve settled on into these varsity roles during the game and got comfortable getting out those pre-game jitters, especially when it’s a Friday night and you’re playing your crosstown rival who brought a good fan base as well.”
The Tiger booters opened their campaign against Division I Kenston on Friday night at C.S. Harris Stadium, where returning starter Ellis Clark delivered a 1-0 tally on the back post in the 25th minute off a cross from fellow junior captain Ian Zitney to get the home crowd going.
Chagrin’s other returning starter, junior captain JT Marting, coming off hip surgery, kept the Tigers’ defensive unit in order from the center-back position for a clean sheet in the first half.
But Kenston, under first-year head coach Trip Roney, a 1986 graduate of the program, found the equalizer in the 55th minute on a set piece from senior Luke Haas just outside the top of the box that Tiger junior goalie Ben Tinsley made a save on, but Kenston senior midfielder Donny Maynard pounded home the rebound for an eventual sister-kisser after 80 minutes.
“We certainly were hoping for a victory for Chagrin,” coach McKenna said. “Needless to say, Trip (Roney) has put together a nice team and knows those players well, because he’s put that program together over the years with travel. It was a nice, well-played match by both teams; both put a lot of time, energy and effort into it, and neither one could come away with the victory.”
Starting in the back with Marting, juniors John Ranieri and Alex Fisher, both varsity reserves last year, as well as freshman Andrew Nachtwey, got the nod on Friday night. Nachtwey got the green light from the get-go because of his tremendous first touch and strong field vision, McKenna said.
While the coach said he thought it’d take two goals to win the match, his defensive unit had been stout against set plays throughout preseason friendlies. Notably, the Tigers are tall with five or six players over 6 foot and therefore should have somewhat of an advantage on clearing and scoring set pieces.
“That has been something we have been proud of, is our defense continues to do very well,” McKenna said. “Kenston just got a set play right outside the box in the front. Our goalie made a nice stop at it. He was able to knock it down, and the Kenston player nicely came in to put it away. I wish one of our guys would have gotten to it first, but applaud (Maynard) for following up and put that in.”
Despite the 1-1 result, both coaches said Chagrin controlled a bit more of the possession play, especially in the midfield.
Running a four-two-three-one formation against Kenston, captains Clark and Zitney opened the match in the defensive midfield positions, while juniors Jack Stauffer, Brenden Levey and Zach Lechman began play as attacking midfielders. Although, McKenna said he moved Clark up as the game wore on to put some more pressure on the Bombers’ defense.
“I felt we had a bit more of the moments of momentum and a little bit more of the possession,” the coach said. “I think we felt, especially going into halftime with a 1-0 lead, we felt, OK, we were looking decent. They didn’t get any strong shots off against our defense in the flow of play, but they just capitalized on that set play.
“And we pressured. We certainly got off some nice shots. Their keeper had a very nice game. So, I was happy with how we played.”
Kenston senior goalie David Rosinski recorded five saves, while Tinsley collected four for the Tigers.
Up top, Chagrin Falls started sophomore Lance Buescher at forward. Meanwhile, freshman midfielder Kenny Clark came off the bench and played 60 minutes, McKenna said.
“He played in the midfield against Kenston, and I’m not sure if I’ll put him up top, but he can also play backline,” McKenna said of the younger Clark. “In the summertime, I had Kenny (Clark) and Andrew (Nachtwey), two freshmen, playing the center-back positions for us on defense. So, I do have quite a bit of flexibility moving guys around.”
With nine junior starters, a sophomore and two freshmen in the mix, many opposing coaches might have thought the Tigers would set out for a rebuilding campaign. But the Chagrin Falls boys have simply reloaded for their program’s 50th season on the pitch and expect to continue the winning traditions of the past, McKenna said.
Despite the 1-1 sister-kisser against rival Kenston, the postgame was anything but salty, the coach said.
“At the end of the game, you know, the whistle’s blown, and our typical protocol is to come to the sideline, we get in a line and you do the shaking of the hands,” he said. “But not so here, because so many of these kids have played with each other on club teams and such that they just immediately start shaking hands, some of them putting arms around each other.
“So, it was just one of those neat scenes to have when you have two friendly rivals go up against each other.”
The Chagrin boys went on to get their first dub of the season, 3-1, on Monday evening, when they traveled to Rocky River. Marting, Stauffer and sophomore forward Michael Mashke scored goals, while the elder Clark, Zitney and sophomore midfielder Brett Vaccaro provided assists.
Up next, Chagrin Falls will host Aurora at 5 p.m. Saturday.