Their 3-0 victory over nationally-ranked Brophy in February for the 6A state championship is a distant memory.
For 16 seniors on the Desert Vista High boys soccer team, this season is an entirely new challenge. Some players have stepped up to become team leaders. Some are in new roles. The key, however, is that all are experienced.
The challenge is not getting too full of themselves.
Senior AJ Abbadessa said the Thunder came into the year with a lot of confidence. They want to repeat as champions, but he believes they have not put in enough effort to earn it. Desert Vista lost its opening match, 2-1 at home to Brophy.
“My past three years on this team, we worked really hard coming into the year. I don’t think I’ve seen that as much this season. But, losing in our first game against Brophy was definitely a wake-up call,” Abbadessa said.
Desert Vista was without two of its captains, Abbadessa and midfielder Parker Lischwe.
“There’s an expectation there of saying, ‘Hey, we won it last year, why can’t we do it again?’ and they don’t want last season to look like a one-year fluke,” coach Trent Elliott said.
Elliott, in his second year with the Thunder but his first season without the “interim” tag, created long-term relationships with the players. He had coached many of them on other teams as far back as sixth grade.
“He was our coach when a lot of us were 12-13 years old, so it’s like a middle school soccer team where we’re all just grown up,” Lischwe said. We have all played together so long, and I think it really shows on the field.”
The Thunder’s greatest strength is on defense. They play a traditional style, with four on the back line. All of them are tall seniors. Their size and strength not only make scoring difficult for opponents but is a weapon on set pieces, too.
On plays as corners and free kicks, several back-line players have time to move up to attacking positions. There, they can battle for headers on goal.
Desert Vista scored two of its three goals on corner and free kicks in the 2018 title game.
“We’re going to be bigger in the box than pretty much every team we play, so our set pieces are going to be really important,” Lischwe said. “Height in their box and height in ours helps so much. It’s overpowering, so hopefully we’ll get a lot of goals that way.”
The Thunder still must get the ball into the opponent’s final third to have set-piece opportunities and to score in the run of play.
Elliott said the team has plenty of talent up top but still must find its footing. To compensate, the Thunder play a possession-heavy style, using quick passes and smart, short runs on the ball to confuse defenders and manufacture shots.
“We want to hold the ball, make defenders chase when we spread the ball out and then find those holes and gaps to be able to attack that way,” Elliott said. “We’ve got some speed now to play long balls but for the most part we’re going to put it on the ground and try to wear other teams out.”
If there’s any unit to sharpen offensive skills against, it is Desert Vista’s back in practice. The Thunder’s defense plays near-perfect as a unit, keeping a tight back line to not get beat on long balls and attacking on any small mistake. That has forced the forwards and midfielders to be more efficient with their own play.
“We got so lucky with who we have in the back, so it kind of came naturally for us to play well on D,” said defender Bradley Brooks. “At the beginning of the season, our defense would always shut down the offense in practice, and now they’re kind of getting behind us a little bit more, especially when they’re playing creatively.
“Creativity is the most difficult thing to deal with as a defense, so when they’re using that chemistry to go out and be creative with their runs and movement of the ball, they’re going to be really good.”
The Thunder were set to visit Santa Barbara, Calif., for a large-scale tournament this past weekend. Three games in as many days give Elliott a chance to play his younger players more minutes and tinker with strategy and starting lineups.