By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
When you have a veteran-laden team, goals become clear.
For Willard, it’s simple: Compete for championships.
The Tigers are gunning for a second straight district title and more victories along the way in a competitive Central Ozark Conference.
With a nine-player senior class, Willard has experience on its side.
“We are senior-heavy and loaded with young men who work hard,” said Willard soccer coach Tim Magee. “The experience we have coming back looks good, but in the end, how we come together as a team will tell us more than just experience can imply.”
Defense might be the Tigers’ best strength.
Trevor Highley enters his third season as starting varsity goalkeeper. He was first team all-district last season and finished with a 1.79 goals against average along with six shutouts.
“Trevor’s been one of the best to come through Willard,” Magee said.
The Tigers return a pair of all-district defenders in Andrew Stuart and Shea Spirk.
“Andrew has made big strides in his game over the last three years. He’s one of the hardest-working players in our program and someone we can always depend on, especially in crucial situations,” Magee said.
Spirk brings superb speed to Willard’s defense.
“He’s one of the fastest players we’ve ever had,” Magee said. “He’ll be leaned on even more this season.”
A third senior defender, Yahir Vasquez, is the energy guy on the team.
“He plays with spirit and flair,” Magee said. “He’ll be a vital part of our defense this year. He played really well in our district championship game last season.”
Defender Ronnie Edwards is aiming for a full season this year. He missed part of his junior season with an injury, forcing Willard to reshuffle its defensive unit.
“He made great strides in his game as a junior and really handled his role well on defense,” Magee said. “He’s had a good offseason, which lends itself to having a good senior season.”
Willard returns more experience and talent in the midfield.
Luke Christensen (one goal, two assists) was district player of the year in 2019.
“Luke’s worked so hard to get to his current level. It’s been fun watching him become the player he is, and we are expecting that level of play to continue,” Magee said.
With his touch and vision, Will Johnson is a natural fit in the midfield. He had four goals and a team-high 13 assists last season.
“Will’s been working hard and has added some strength along with his skill, which should only help his game,” Magee said.
Senior midfielder Cayden Jarvis is another player who has shown steady improvement over his career.
“He’s a self-made soccer player who has wanted and worked for the level he’s playing at now,” Magee said. “He came off the bench for us last year and was very valuable in that role. We’re hoping he takes the next step this year.”
Senior forward Joseph Lupescu is an aggressive player with an iron will. He’s also Willard’s top returning scorer after posting 14 goals and five assists last season.
“He’s one of those players who when asked to run through a wall, he wants to know how much destruction you want,” Magee said. “The scary thing is that his skill has caught up with his aggressiveness.”
Junior Chris Doyle (midfield/forward) is the team’s utility knife. He was second team all-district in 2019. Doyle finished with four goals and five assists.
“His skills and soccer IQ allowed us to play him at any position, which came in handy with the injuries we had,” Magee said. “We hope to find a regular position for him but we know when we need him elsewhere, he’ll be up to the task.”
Sophomore forward Caleb Kuchta had an excellent rookie season for the Tigers. He had rare polish for a freshman, earning him a spot in Willard’s starting lineup.
Kuchta netted 10 goals to go with seven assists.
“He stepped in against more experienced players and held his own,” Magee said. “His offseason work has been stellar, so we’re looking for more good things from Caleb.”
Willard finished 12-14 overall last season, but ended on a strong note by beating Bolivar (1-0) and Parkview (5-0) for the Class 3 District 11 tournament title. It marked Willard’s first district title since the Tigers won three straight from 2012-14.
Willard would fall 2-0 to Neosho in the opening round of the Class 3 state tournament.
The Tigers graduated a pair of all-conference selections in forward Jay Weber (first team) and defender Ben Roggensees (honorable mention).
Weber, who was also named all-region in Class 3, was one of the team’s top offensive weapons.
“Jay was explosive and fast,” Magee said. “He had to be accounted for every time he stepped onto the field. He was always a problem for opposing defenses.”
Roggensees keyed a Willard defense that allowed one or fewer goals in 10 matches, including three straight clean sheets near the end of the season.
“Ben’s soccer IQ, experience and dedication to our program will be missed,” Magee said.
A pair of juniors give Willard more options for its lineup.
Forward Jessee Owens is a newcomer who has quickly bonded with his new team, Magee said.
“Jessee brings experience, skill and speed to our offense,” he said.
Brian Galaviz has played in multiple positions for Willard over his first two years.
“We’re hoping to find that spot that fits his skill set,” Magee said. “He’s had a very good summer and we need that to transfer over to the fall.”
Willard starts the regular season August 28-29 at the Smith-Cotton Shootout in Sedalia.
The Tigers are eager to get started.
“With the chaos of this past spring and summer, lacing up the boots and giving it a go will be positive for everyone,” Magee said.