Soccer Hornets eye another winning campaign
Fully-overhauled backfield likely key to 2021 prospects
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
Even with the graduation departure of the program’s second-leading career producer of goals and its single-season assists co-leader, the 2021 Chillicothe High School soccer Hornets would seem to have sufficient returning offensive firepower to make opponents worry about keeping the ball out of their net this fall. How well CHS does in that regard – preventing goals – itself figures to be the deciding factor on whether the Hornets can stack a third-consecutive winning season atop their 11-10-1 2019 and 11-7 2020 marks.
Long-time head coach Tim Cunningham, entering his 11th year at the helm of the program that is beginning only its 15th year of competition, has about half of the starting lineup which generated last year’s success – the .611 rate of winning was fourth-highest in CHS boys’ booters’ history.
The handful of returning starters includes senior veteran goalkeeper Jaxson Alberton and the top two goal-scorers for the ’20 squad – 2-times all-Midland Empire Conference center (attacking) midfielder Chace Corbin and second-team all-league forward Drake Cosgrove, who netted 12 goals apiece as juniors. Also still on hand, but operating from new positions, will be senior Ben Cueni-Smith, who shifts from forward to outside mid, and junior Wyatt Brandsgaard, transplanted to defensive midfielder from last fall’s back line, where he was first-team all-conference.
That quartet of non-goalkeepers accounted for 26 goals and 13 assists a year ago and other returnees chipped in another half-dozen tallies and two helpers, so the potential for generating goals appears reliable, even in the absence of speedy, high-leaping Mason Baxter (51 career goals, tied with Jon Kline for second all-time behind Steven Cooper’s 55, and 18 2020 assists, equaling Derek Hussey’s season standard) and Caleb Vance (four goals, three assists).
Where the intrigue lies is how well Cunningham and veteran assistants Shannon Grable and Jimmy Chapman can reconstruct the line of defense right in front of Albertson. Traditionally, strong, conservative backfields have been a staple of the Cunningham system.
In addition to shifting Brandsgaard up to the midfield area where they’ll hope he can disrupt plays and interrupt passes to create quick-transition opportunities to attack, veteran stay-at-home back/sweeper Dalton Ripley is graduated.
With the coaching staff planning to again utilize the 3-backs/sweeper configuration, senior Nate King is the top prospect to move into the sweeper’s spot, backing up sophomore Josh Adams in the middle and senior Logan Distler and sophomore Tyler Stephens to either side of the backfield line. If that group encounters growing pains or injury/illness, a couple of veterans who are battling to win the other outside mid spot across the pitch from Cueni-Smith – senior Aiden Zimmerman and junior Gabe Hansen – could be candidates to step into a backfield role, as – obviously – Brandsgaard could, too, if the need arose.
As it is, this year’s Chillicothe approach seems to be trying to utilize the veteran talents to keep the ball outside the CHS defensive third of the pitch with better ball control and movement and disruption of opponent’s thrusts out around midfield.
On the attack, Cosgrove has 21 career goals to his credit and could challenge for a spot in the all-time top-5 by the time his final season plays out over the next three months. Not only does he have strong “finishing” capability, but he’s also a strong corner kicker, leading to a career total of 14 assists.
Fellow fourth-year starter Corbin really emerged as a difference-maker the last half of his junior season and, with some additional height now added to his quickness, agility, and tenacity, could be the team’s top scoring threat. He matched Cosgrove’s team-most dozen goals last year (when opponents devoted extra attention to denying Baxter, who had posted 26 tallies as a junior) and has 19 for his career plus 12 “dimes” (assists).
On the outside, Cueni-Smith will be looked to for continuation of his “orchestrating” skills, using his ability to visualize potential developing plays and, with accurate passes, creating high-quality scoring opportunities for Cosgrove, Corbin and younger forwards like junior Sam Reeter (four goals in 2020) and sophomores Jackson Reeter and Jacob Adams. Cueni-Smith notched a team-most 15 assists as a sophomore in 2019 and six more last year. He also owns a handful of goals in his career.
Another player likely to see early-season action in a midfielder’s role, Cunningham reports, is sophomore Jadon Collins.
In goal, the rather-diminutive, but quick, Albertson posted six shutout wins and a 1.61 goals-against average as a junior. He posted a season-high 12 saves when the Hornets posted a 3-1 victory at Concordia: St. Paul Lutheran last Oct. 1, the CHS boys’ first-ever triumph over the Saints in nine tries. They immediately followed that with a 5-0 home whitewash of Kansas City: St. Pius X, the Hornets’ first-ever regular-season victory over the often-tough Warriors.
Assesses Cunningham overall about his newest squad, “We have a good mixture of experience and youth on our team. We hope to display high character, hard work, and team chemistry each game and throughout the season. “Getting better each day and playing our best soccer at the end of the season is always the goal.”
That formula was on display last year when the Hornets lost three of the first four outings before going 10-4 the rest of the way. The season ended with a near-miss upset of MEC champion St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond in the district-tournament semifinals at Savannah. Blanked by the Golden Eagles 5-0 not quite two months earlier, the Hornets got a match-tying goal from Corbin in the 77th minute to force overtime before eventually dropping the penalty-kicks “shootout” 4-1 for a 2-1 defeat.
While having a winning overall record last year, the Chillicothe soccer boys will hope to bounce back with greater success in the MEC, in which they were only 3-4 a season ago. However, four of the five teams which finished ahead of the Hornets in the conference standings a year ago project to be as good or better this fall, making improvement a tougher task.