Saturday, 23 January 2021 09:57

SEASON PREVIEW: Raiders expect to 'be competitive' in 2021

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Junior Justin McDougald (with ball) looks to get a pass past senior Bryan Stanback to fellow senior Bradford Pittman (right). Junior Justin McDougald (with ball) looks to get a pass past senior Bryan Stanback to fellow senior Bradford Pittman (right). Kyle Pillar — Sports Editor.

ROCKINGHAM — The high school soccer season will be uncharacteristically cooler this year, among other changes, but that’s not stopping the Richmond Raiders and head coach Chris Larsen from wanting to get off to a hot start.

Getting started roughly six months later than a normal soccer season because of the coronavirus, the Raiders are just days away from opening the 2021 slate. Richmond will play a condensed 14-game season against only Sandhills Athletic Conference opponents.

But for Larsen and his 20 varsity players, the chance to play is something they’re not taking for granted. Despite graduating 13 players from last year’s squad, Larsen is confident that the depth and experience of his current team will adapt quickly.

“A lot of guys look good right now, and I can tell they’re eager and ready to play,” Larsen said. “The biggest thing is that a lot of the guys have played and listened the last couple of years and they understand their roles. That’s going to pay dividends when we only have a short time to get ready.

“Soccer is a game of chemistry and getting used to playing as a team,” he added. “I’m not expecting perfection the first week, but everybody has an understanding of where he should be to help the team. It’s been a good start so far.”

Now in his third year at the helm of the program, Larsen is hoping to keep the team in the upper third of the SAC. Last year, the Raiders went 10-10-2 overall, but impressed with a 9-5 tally in conference play.

The Raiders took third place behind Hoke County and Pinecrest high schools, which both posted a 13-1 SAC record. Richmond missed the NCHSAA 4A state playoffs and the team hopes to return later this spring.

This season will be without any non-conference games, which is something Larsen has used the past two years to better the program for when the Raiders play SAC teams. 

Without being able to schedule perennial playoffs teams out of Charlotte and Fayetteville, Larsen will have to rely on the talent he’s cultivated the last couple of seasons. The program’s timeline has also been disrupted this year, adding another hiccup ahead of the new campaign.

“Our preparation has been different because we are used to practicing all summer and rolling into the season,” Larsen explained. “We were fortunate to get some late fall workouts and started back two weeks before the season.

“It’s the same amount of time, just not consecutive. The big thing is we lose non-conference games so we have to be on our game at the start. It’s a short season, so we are just hoping we can play our 14 games and win as many as possible.”

The senior class this year features eight players, all of whom saw some playing time as juniors. Larsen’s philosophy is to use a revolving door of players in games to keep the roster fresh. 

Among the seniors are Noah Aiken, Jay Ammons, Hector Castro, Cale Luckey, Jaxon Mabe, River Meacham, Bradford Pittman and Bryan Stanback. All of them clocked significant minutes in various roles last fall.

Junior Alex Medina returns for his second year on varsity and eight other juniors will make the jump from junior varsity or are new to the team. They are Padron Abrahm, Ben D'Aguilar, Cody Eason, Rolando Gonzalez, Justin McDougald, Pedro Molina, Keaton Sweatt, Ian Williams and Luke Williams.

Also making the jump to the varsity team are sophomores Ty Murray and Christian Robinson, both of whom stood out on last year’s junior varsity team.

Senior River Meacham attempts a header on net during a drill at Monday’s practice.

“From last year, there's been a drastic change because we are playing a different style of soccer,” Aiken explained of the team. “We want to possess the ball more instead of playing fast. I think we have a good group of players who can do that.”

New this season with all sports, indoors and outdoors, is the requirement to wear a mask during all practices and games.

“It’s a lot different playing with a mask, it makes it harder to breathe when you’re running a lot,” Aiken added. “I think the guys are faring nicely and we’ll get used to them. We’re all glad to be out here and the light at the end of the tunnel is coming. We’re excited to get started.”

Of the current roster, Aiken is the returning leading goal scorer from a year ago. He netted four goals as a junior and Castro had one. Former seniors Luke Hawks, Lee Hayden and Noah Jordan combined for 23 of the Raiders’ 37 goals.

Medina registered two assists last year, and Pittman aided on a goal one time. Larsen said he’s not putting the weight of scoring goals on just one or two players, instead he hopes that several players will find a groove and put the ball in the net.

An issue last season was Richmond’s ability to score, averaging just 1.7 goals per game. That ranked sixth out of eight teams in the SAC, and it’s a number Larsen hopes to see increase. 

Richmond allowed 49 goals last year, a -12 differential, but that was the fourth best ranking amongst the conference teams. Ammons was a big part of protecting the net, sliding into the starting role when former keeper Kaden Walker went down with a torn ACL.

“Jay filled in the role as keeper last year and grew a lot,” Larsen said. “And I hope he picks up where he left off. Our backs will also have to do a good job of clearing the ball and keeping it out front.”

Senior goalkeeper Jay Ammons deflects a shot in Monday’s practice.

Larsen said a set starting lineup isn’t something he plans to follow each game. He instead plans to move players to where they can best help the team and keep the producers up front when their foot is hot. 

Medina is expected to be a regular midfielder who can use his speed to possess the ball and get it to his teammates.

“Hector is due to have a breakout year, and I’ve coached him for four years,” Larsen said of the senior. “He’ll be a big part of our success this year, even if what he does isn’t on the stat sheet. 

“Noah will be a versatile player. I’ve told him to be ready to play anywhere for us as a utility guy. Alex is back for his second year on varsity and I expect a big year for him. He will be one of our strongest midfielders.”

Stanback played a lot of center back last year and Larsen suggested that Abrahm will also be used on the defensive end in front of Ammons. The junior newcomer, Larsen explained, “can use his size and knowledge of the game” to keep opposing offenses from scoring.

“Our expectation is to always go out and be competitive,” Larsen said of the team’s goals. “My style of coaching keeps us in ball games but we need to be able to score and finish games. Low-scoring games aren’t always exciting but it shows we’re in them.  

“We always want to compete for the conference championship, but to finish in the top two would be a win this year,” he added. “The team has to be able to play our style of game and do what we need to do to put the ball in the back of the net.”

Pittman, who will also be a midfielder who could see some time up top or along the back row, said he understands his role as a senior leader. Taking pride in that position, Pittman said one area of focus will be creating a strong sense of cohesiveness this winter. He also thinks Richmond can improve from last year.

“It’s amazing to get a chance to play, I was really worried we were going to miss the season,” Pittman said. “I think it’s important this year that everyone feels like a part of the team and we build chemistry. We lacked that last year, so as seniors, we have that responsibility of bringing people together.

“I hope we have a decent season, and to do that, we have to be quick out of the gates,” he added. “Once we fix our weaknesses, I think we can be a lot better than last year.”

When asked what he thinks the key to the season will be, Castro was adamant about communication and toughing out the unknowns that the pandemic or conference opponents may throw at the Raiders.

“We just have to endure the season,” Castro said. “We need to communicate and work hard every day. I know we’re glad to have the chance to play.

“Awareness on the field will help us. If we know where everyone is on the field and we keep our heads up, we should play well.”

Another concern for the Raiders, and all teams are facing, is the different field conditions. During a regular season that runs from August to October, heat and dry conditions are expected. 

Now with the season starting at the end of January, Larsen said wet field conditions, a soggy and muddy playing surface and possibly snow could impact how players’ bodies and feet will react when cutting, running or planting. 

“This is a year unlike any other, so we’ve got to be flexible and be ready to play,” Larsen closed. “Whether it’s snow or COVID, I pray everything goes right.”

Richmond’s season will begin on the road at Pinecrest High School on Thursday, Jan. 28, at 7 p.m. The junior varsity team will begin at 5 p.m. and also play at the Patriots.

Last modified on Saturday, 23 January 2021 10:04
Kyle Pillar

Three-time award-winning sports editor. Indiana University of Pennsylvania communications media and journalism alumni. English teacher, Ninth Grade Academy.

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