Wednesday, 11 August 2021 21:32

SEASON PREVIEW: Raiders ready for test of new conference, hoping to return to playoffs

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Senior Luke Williams (left) tries to maneuver around fellow senior teammate Cody Eason at Tuesday's practice. Senior Luke Williams (left) tries to maneuver around fellow senior teammate Cody Eason at Tuesday's practice. Kyle Pillar — Sports Editor.

ROCKINGHAM — Trading a winter season for a regular fall slate, the Richmond Senior High School boys’ soccer team is days away from contending for a conference title.

Competing in the newly realigned 3A/4A Sandhills Athletic Conference, the Raiders and head coach Chris Larsen have spent the summer preparing themselves for an 18-game regular season.

Like seasons past, the Raiders are setting the bar high, while also trying to acclimate themselves to the rigor of a longer schedule following a pandemic shortened 2020 campaign. 

Larsen, who is entering his fourth season as head coach, said the number of players was lower than normal this year, but he’s confident that the Raiders have “built a pretty solid squad.”

“It’s good to get back on a normal routine,” Larsen said. “That started in the summer for us when our workouts were all about touching the ball consistently in the heat. We wanted to condition and work on our fundamentals and get accustomed to playing a fuller schedule.

“This season will be a good test of the waters with the new conference and get the guys back to playing,” he continued. “As a whole, there are a lot of guys who can fill missing spaces from last year. We’re just excited to be back.”

Head coach Chris Larsen insructs his team during overlap drills at Tuesday’s practice. (Kyle Pillar)

The Raiders went 9-4-1 last winter, taking third in the former Sandhills Athletic Conference, and made the NCHSAA 4A state playoffs.

Losing eight players to graduation, this year’s team returns 11 varsity players, adds 10 players moving up from junior varsity and will have two new players, including a foreign exchange student from Mongolia.

Among the returners are senior All-Conference selections Alex Medina and Luke Williams, who both earned the recognition as juniors. Williams, a forward, led the team with 12 goals last winter, while Medina added eight scores and had a team-high nine assists from the midfield.

“We definitely want to come out on top in conference play and want to make the playoffs for the second year in a row,” Medina said of the team’s expectations.

“We need to come out and play our hearts out every game. There’s not going to be an easy game because the new conference has a lot of good teams that will make every game a battle.”

Senior Alex Medina (left) and junior Ayden Mabe (right) battle for possession at practice this week. (Kyle Pillar)

Larsen noted that even with the shorter turnaround than normal, the Raiders have had to put in the extra work this offseason to prepare for a tougher conference. 

Richmond will still see familiar opponents like Hoke County, Pinecrest and Scotland, but add Lee County, Southern Lee and Union Pines.

Pinecrest and Southern Lee both went undefeated in conference play to win the SAC and Tri-County Conference, respectively, last season. Union Pines went 4-4 and Lee County recorded a 2-6 record in the Tri-County standings.

“With the new conference, it’s a pretty big question mark until we start playing,” Larsen said. “We’ve played a majority of these teams in the past in non-conference, and bringing them into conference will be a good test for everyone.

“I expect there to be closer ball games than in the past, and for the whole conference to be a little more competitive,” he added. “We’ll have to bring our A game every night, but the benefit of tougher competition is that it gets us more ready for different teams in the playoffs.”

Richmond will run a series of formations this fall, primarily a 4-1-4-1 (four defenders, a holding midfielder, four midfielders and a forward) or a 4-3-3 (four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards). 

Larsen said his lineup this year allows for more flexibility, and that rebuilding a backline of defenders that lost several starters will be key. He added that the Raiders “aren’t a high-scoring team, but we’re used to playing in tight games.”

One returning center back will be senior Abrahm Padron, who played significant minutes as a junior. Joining him will be varsity newcomer Luke McCormick in the middle, while second-year varsity player Keaton Sweatt will hold down one of the outside back positions.

Richmond’s strongest position group is its midfield, which returns Medina, senior Pedro Molina and sophomore Jesus Castro. Larsen also expects players like senior Cody Eason and junior Ty Murray to fill in the midfield.

Other players expected to see ample playing time are juniors Ayden Mabe and Jeremiah McLean, while a host of rising JV players will rotate in over the course of the season. Larsen said there will be “a lot of shifting guys around to solidify our starting lineup.”

Senior Ian Williams will take over as the Raiders’ goalkeeper, having split time last season with reigning SAC Goalkeeper of the Year Jay Ammons.

Senior goalkeeper Ian Williams makes a save during Tuesday’s practice. (Kyle Pillar)

“We lost three of our defensive starters from last year, so we’re looking to touch up on a few details with the defense,” Ian Williams said. “I got a decent amount of playing time last year, but I’m ready to show what I can do in the net.

“Communication is key for us all around,” he added. “We have a majority of players who are returning and I think we’ll be able to communicate really well.” 

Luke Williams hopes to keep his scoring foot hot this season, but echoed Ian Williams in explaining that staying connected on the field will lead the Raiders to success.

“Talking and being able to understand one another is such a big part of soccer,” Luke Williams said. “We have been playing with a lot of intensity, and that’s good with the new conference. I’m looking forward to seeing our offense work together to score as much as we can.”

Richmond will expand its non-conference schedule, playing Lumberton, Pine Forest, East Mecklenburg, Sun Valley, Cape Fear and Porter Ridge one time each. The Raiders will then play each of their six SAC opponents twice.

Larsen noted the team’s skillset is even across the board and that he doesn’t anticipate a drop off in talent from the previous couple of years. He added that Medina, Ian and Luke Williams have “all done a great job taking on leadership roles.”

The Raiders will play two scrimmages at Hoke County on Thursday and three more at South View on Saturday to get ready for Tuesday’s season-opener. 

Larsen hopes to use the live action to help the Raiders get on the same page and figure out the best 11 players to start the season.

“We made the playoffs last year, and we want to get back there,” Larsen closed. “But our No. 1 goal is to do well in conference play. I think we can finish in the top three, and if we do, we should make the playoffs. Right now our focus is one game at a time.”

Richmond will open its season on Tuesday, Aug. 17, at non-conference Lumberton High School at 7 p.m.

The Richmond Observer will continue its coverage of the Richmond varsity and junior varsity soccer teams this fall.

Below is the complete 2021 schedule for the Richmond boys’ soccer team. Home games are bold and conference games are denoted with an asterisk.

Tuesday, Aug. 17 vs. Lumberton, 7 p.m.

Wednesday, Aug. 18 @ Pine Forest, 7 p.m.

Tuesday, Aug. 24 @ East Mecklenburg, 6:30 p.m.

Thursday, Aug. 26 vs. Sun Valley, 7 p.m.

Monday, Aug. 30 vs. Cape Fear, 7 p.m.

Wednesday, Sept. 1 vs. Southern Lee, 7 p.m. *

Wednesday, Sept. 8 vs. Pinecrest, 7 p.m. *

Monday, Sept. 13 @ Hoke County, 7 p.m. *

Wednesday, Sept. 15 @ Union Pines, 7 p.m. *

Monday, Sept. 20 vs. Lee County, 6 p.m. *

Wednesday, Sept. 22 @ Porter Ridge, 6:30 p.m.

Monday, Sept. 27 @ Scotland, 7 p.m. *

Wednesday, Sept. 29 @ Southern Lee, 7 p.m. *

Monday, Oct. 4 @ Pinecrest, 7 p.m. *

Wednesday, Oct. 6 vs. Hoke County, 7 p.m. *

Monday, Oct. 11 vs. Union Pines, 7 p.m. *

Wednesday, Oct. 13 @ Lee County, 6 p.m. *

Wednesday, Oct. 20 vs. Scotland, 7 p.m. *

Last modified on Thursday, 12 August 2021 09:26
Kyle Pillar

Nine-time N.C. Press Association award-winning sports editor. Indiana University of Pennsylvania communications media and journalism alumni. English teacher, Ninth Grade Academy.

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