New to his team and new to the section last season, Larry Fingers kept things "close to the vest" on the soccer pitch.
Now in his second season at the helm of the Canon-McMillan boys' soccer team, Fingers is familiar with his team, his team is familiar with him and the Big Macs are getting ready to open things up a little bit.
"We have a very creative set up," Fingers said. "We are very free form in terms of our formation, the goal of what we are doing is make something people can't plan for."
Fingers hopes the new free form style of play is what it takes to help close the gap between the Big Macs and Section 5-AAA powerhouses Peters Township and Upper St. Clair.
Canon-McMillan has finished in third place the past three seasons behind the Indians and Panthers. Last season the top two finishers in Section 5-AAA met in the WPIAL championship game.
"Our conference is tough, night in, night out," Fingers said. "But we are looking forward to this. If you can get through it, you are prepared for the playoffs. Any team who makes the playoffs [from our section] is in a good position to make a run to the WPIAL finals."
The Big Macs proved last season they can hang with anyone in the section. In their four total meetings with Upper St. Clair and Peters Township, Canon-McMillan either led 1-0 at halftime or went to the break in a scoreless tie. But the team wound up going 0-3-1 against the big two.
"Last year we joked with the boys, we were the best first half team in the WPIAL," Fingers aid. "Coming in last year, we took an assessment and our goal was to make the playoffs. We knew Peters and Upper St. Clair would be hard teams, we just wanted to steal one or two."
Canon-McMillan entered this season with eight returning starters. It was ranked No. 5 in WPIAL Class AAA in the preseason.
"Last year we didn't have the pieces," Fingers said. "This year we do, we have set different goals. We have kind of pushed the guys to alter our goals a little bit, right now we are trying to put Canon-Mac soccer on the map."
What the Big Macs have is a solid defensive unit that allows midfielders and forwards to get creative. The team plays out of a base 4-5-1 formation but the group hardly stays put in that setup. Three midfielders have the green light to play where they see fit, either up top or in the middle.
"We're working on reading the game, understanding the game and making decisions as they go," Fingers said. "We have three midfielders who go as they see fit. It is a very creative set up and I think we have the ability to do that because our back four is very strong."
The Big Macs started the season with a clean sweep in its own tournament, blanking North Hills, 3-0, and McGuffey, 5-0.
Sophomore Josh Kruczek scored four goals in the tournament, including a hat trick against McGuffey. He is one of the players who is given the go-ahead to alternate between midfield and forward as is junior Corey McCurdy, who scored a goal and had two assists in the weekend tournament.
Freshman forward Nick Sodini came off the bench to score two goals in the tournament. He will be a part of a 15-man rotation Fingers plans on using this season.
Junior midfielder Ivan Viveros also scored a goal in the tournament. Viveros moves from defense to midfield this year. Senior forward Nick Oberhaus also will play up top at times with Kruczek and McCurdy.
The strong defense starts with senior goalie James Hathaway, a three-year starter and captain.
"He is someone we lean on," Fingers said.
Senior defender Alec Brumbaugh is a returning all-section player. He plays alongside returning starters senior Eddie Hartman and senior Nathan Jacobs and new starter junior Brian Sontag
"In our conference, the defense is something that needs to be shored up," Fingers said.
Canon-McMillan was scheduled to begin section play on Tuesday against section newcomer Brashear, one of four City League schools competing in the WPIAL in soccer. That game was postponed by stormy weather.
Fingers, a health and physical education teacher at Brookline Elementary School is familiar with all the players on Brashear who came up through Brookline.
The Big Macs first major test will be next Tuesday when it visits Upper St. Clair in a section showdown.
"That is our biggest test," Fingers said. "We will see where things settle at the end of the night."