By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Editor
The city of McKinney has become a mecca of high stakes high school soccer in the Dallas-Fort Worth area over the last decade or so.
For the McKinney High Lions soccer team, the expectations and the drive to make a deep run through the playoffs has never been higher. After a 2012 season that saw the Lions go perfect in district play and capture the District 17-4A championship, no one expected the bi-district round loss versus Frisco Wakeland that ended the team’s state title dreams prematurely.
After an offseason that saw the JV head coach and varsity assistant Matt Ellis leave to take the head coaching job at Carrollton Newman Smith, and the graduation of the 17-4A Offensive Player of the Year Derrick Horvath and Goalkeeper of the Year Chuck Schober, the Lions needed to find some goal scoring and a new goalkeeper during the fall workouts.
However, 2012 17-4A Coach of the Year Alan Pocock was unable to arrange an assistant to help during the workout period in the fall, which meant that there was just one coach to run a practice with 55 players.
“It didn’t allow for a lot of focus on just varsity that I have typically had in the past,” said Pocock. “The first practice I was able to have with just varsity was after Thanksgiving.”
Fortunately for the Lions, new JV coach and varsity assistant Andy Brown was able to step in and help when official after school practice kicked off after Thanksgiving, allowing Pocock the opportunity to evaluate his large roster.
“My main concern was just getting the best lineup out of the experience we have coming back from last year,” said Pocock. “We definitely lost some goal scoring from last year and one of the top goalkeepers we have ever had at McKinney. But we had more varsity-returning players with playoff experience than we had the past year, which I am really excited about.”
Before the season officially began, senior captains Mikie Swim and Gerson Mendoza led a players-only meeting about possible adjustments that needed to be made for the upcoming season, as well as get everybody on the same page to what was expected on the field.
“The seniors had one of those heart-to-heart meetings to just let everything out on the table and hash things out without me around,” Pocock said, “and they talked about what needs to improve or what we should get rid of in order to achieve the big goal, which is to make playoffs.”
The biggest adjustment came with how the weekly practice schedule was arranged. In previous years, Pocock had substituted a typical 90-minute soccer workout with a rigorous speed and agility regimen at least once or twice a week. However, the players went to their head coach and told him that the effect on team chemistry that came from the soccer-only workouts was more beneficial for team chemistry, and that the players were dedicated to working on speed and agility on the side.
Instead of dismissing his players’ recommendations, Pocock went with the idea and said that he has been beyond pleased with the dedication of his team.
“We had four of those (90-minute soccer workouts) a week from Thanksgiving break through Christmas break, and they were dedicated on their own to getting their speed and agility program done on their own,” said Pocock.
With the season kicking off last week, the Lions competed in the Frisco ISD Dr. Pink Invitational that involved teams from all over the state of Texas. McKinney finished 2-1-1 in the tournament, defeating Frisco Heritage 1-0 and Wichita Falls 2-1, losing to St. Thomas 1-0, and tying El Paso El Dorado 0-0.
While no coach sends his players out on the field without the expectation to win the match, Pocock said that adjusting and finalizing a starting lineup is the most important thing that can come out of the early season tournament matches.
“I don’t think the result is more important than experimenting and testing with the lineup. You have to focus on going for the win but also trying to evaluate everybody that you can.”
In fact, Pocock saw 21 players take the field over the weekend tournament, something that he says you won’t see often, even in non-district matches.
“Certainly it would be a little far fetched to assume a coach would play 24 players in every non-district game, but when you are going to have that many players on a roster there is always going to be that fight for playing time,” said Pocock. “I would say everybody has passed their test so far, but it is far too early to make real definite decisions on anything.”
After the weekend was over, the head coach of the Lions said he thought his squad was a little more ahead of schedule than he expected at this point.
“I thought we looked a little bit ahead of schedule at this point in the season than what I was expecting. I think that is a great sign of the senior leadership and experience on this squad.”
The Lions have several players returning in 2013 that were all-district mentions last season, including seniors Francisco Manzanarez, Chris Garcia, Tom Navarette, and Mendoza, all second team all-district members in 17-4A last season. For goalkeeper, Pocock has turned to senior Rylan Whan and junior Quique Vicens. Each allowed one goal in the two scrimmages and four regular season games this season.
With 11 seniors on the roster, all with varsity playoff experience under their belts, the Lions are poised to make a run at a school-record ninth straight playoff appearance. Like the other sports programs at McKinney High, this season will find the Lions in District 10-5A with the three Plano schools, Allen, and crosstown rival and state ranked McKinney Boyd.
In a district with multiple state titles and final four appearances, Pocock said that his program is no stranger to the pressures of 5A soccer, but understands that this is not your regular 5A soccer district.
“I think the boys are really motivated in this non-district portion of the schedule knowing how difficult this district will be,” said Pocock.
The Lions last competed in a 5A district with the Plano schools back in 2003-04, when the program won just one match and tied four in the two seasons combined. During that period, McKinney North was just opening up as a school which meant that half of the Lions starting roster would transfer up Highway 75, leaving the program scrambling to put together a solid lineup. Combine that with facing three of the biggest high schools in the state that have a plethora of soccer talent to choose from, the Lions weren’t in a favorable position to succeed.
But 2013 is a new year for the McKinney Lion soccer team, a program with a proud legacy and tradition that hopes to return to state dominance this spring. With expectations at an all-time high at MHS, Pocock said his players are confident they can reach those expectations because of the name on the front of their jerseys.
“I think it gives them confidence every time they put on the blue and gold and step out on the field.”
Click here for the Lions full schedule. McKinney returns to action on Friday when the Lions travel to McKinney North, beginning at 7:15 p.m.
Watch for more stories on MISD’s varsity boys and girls soccer programs in the coming weeks as TSB’s Soccer Kickoff series continues.