West Xtra: Hopewell boys soccer team showing progress
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There were just 47 seconds remaining in regulation play back on Sept. 14 when Blackhawk's Johnny Rebich knocked in a header off the goal post and into the net to break a late-game tie and lift the Cougars past Hopewell, 3-2.
That game also presented the Hopewell boys soccer team with its first loss of the season.
"We feel that we've won the games we should have at this point in the season," third-year Vikings coach Nick Mohrbacher said. "We played a very good game against Blackhawk and lost in the final seconds, so that game could have gone either way.
"We may not have always played great this season, but we've been able to stay in games and win. We played very well against Freedom and came back to win 3-2."
Entering tonight's action one game behind Blackhawk (9-1, 7-0) in Section 4-AA, the Vikings apparently did not let that loss to the Cougars affect their overall play during the first half of the season.
Hopewell is 7-2 overall and 6-1 in section play going into tonight's game against Freedom Area. It's only other loss was a 3-0 non-section decision against Class AA powerhouse Mars Area.
"When we move the ball and play with our skill, we're at our best," Mohrbacher said. "We're not the most physically gifted team; we're not big. Our skill is in our ability to use our space and our teamwork to move the ball down field.
"When we do that, we're tough to beat."
The Vikings posted another big victory Sept. 22 with a 4-0 section win over Central Valley. The win kept Hopewell ahead of both Beaver Area (5-4, 4-2) and Central Valley (3-4, 3-3) in the standings.
"We played really well," Mohrbacher said. "That game was one of our best team wins so far. We got to the ball first and played well. It probably was the most complete game we've played."
Through nine games, Hopewell has outscored its opponents, 27-10. Ten of the first 24 goals scored by the Vikings were off setup plays from either a throw-in, direct or indirect kick or corner kick.
"I'm not surprised with how we've played, but I'm not sure if I really expected us to do as well as we have," said Mohrbacher, whose team finished 7-11 overall last season, losing in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs. "I knew we weren't going to dominate the section, but I also knew we could be one of the better teams in the section.
"We've been able to finish games, which was something we struggled with in the past. We're getting the goals we need to get."
Mohrbacher attributes his team's scoring success to seniors Jake Lauderbaugh, Ethan Byrne, Johnny Brady and Alex Hamilton.
Lauderbaugh, a forward, paced the Vikings with eight goals through eight games. Hamilton, who scored a pair of goals against Central Valley, also is a forward and had six goals and two assists. In the midfield, Byrne had registered eight assists, while Brady netted five goals and three assists -- all through eight games.
"Jake, Ethan and Johnny play for the same cup team and that has helped them compete at a high level during the offseason," Mohrbacher said. "The other guys have all improved as well and worked hard during our early workouts.
"We've also had several sophomores come up and help, too. We have four or five sophomores on the varsity team and they go out and work hard. They do what they're asked to do and have been good support to our older players."
Junior Mike Michalko opened the season in goal before he was moved to the stopper position. Senior Collin Cannister took over the keeper duties and has remained between the posts ever since the Vikings' second game of the season against Freedom.
"Collin has done a good job," Mohrbacher said. "He makes saves on shots that need to be saved. He never played a varsity game as a keeper [before this season], so he was sort of thrown into the fire. He stepped up and has solidified the position.
"The move also allowed us to get Michalko out into the field, so it's been an effective change so far."
Hopewell began its second-half section schedule this week by defeating Beaver Area, 3-2, in a home match on Tuesday. The Vikings will begin the second half of their section schedule against Freedom tonight before a key rematch against Blackhawk next Tuesday on the Vikings' home field.
"We really have to keep playing like we did against Blackhawk, Freedom and Central Valley," Mohrbacher said. "We worked hard and beat people to the ball. If we do that and are successful with the ball, we're an effective team."
Mohrbacher also knows the second half of the season won't be any easier than the first half.
"I wasn't aware of it until recently, but the guys have mentioned they really want to win the section [title]," Mohrbacher said. "A Hopewell boys team has never won a section title, so that's really our goal.
"The only way to do that is by winning out. We still have to take it one game at a time and we know we can't expect Blackhawk to lose [to anyone else in the section] either."