Thursday, 08 November 2018 00:00

Raider soccer season recap: program "headed in the right direction" following Larsen's first year as head coach

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First-year head coach Chris Larsen called this season "exciting" as the Raiders continue to trend in the right direction. First-year head coach Chris Larsen called this season "exciting" as the Raiders continue to trend in the right direction. Photo courtesy of Kyle Pillar.

ROCKINGHAM - It was an “exciting” 2018 season for the Richmond Senior High School varsity soccer team in the words of first-year head coach Chris Larsen.

In June, Larsen was ushered in as the program’s new head coach, succeeding his predecessor and 30-year veteran Bennie Howard upon his retirement. Howard was the face of the program for three decades, but Larsen wasted no time in making the program his own.

Under the former Raider soccer player’s leadership, Richmond rolled to a 12-10 overall record, and finished tied with Hoke County for second place in the Sandhills Athletic Conference with a 10-4 SAC record. Larsen also guided Richmond back to the NCHSAA 4A state playoffs, the first time since 2016, where the No. 23 Raiders fell to No. 10 Ardrey Kell High School last Friday.

“It was a pretty successful season,” Larsen noted of his first year at the helm. “We had some bumps in the road early that could have went one way or the other, but the guys persevered and made the most of what we were were dealt. This year, the team had to learn a new formation, it was a new group playing together, and they were getting used to a new coaching style, but I think overall we met our expectations. 

“I would have loved to have won more games, but I can’t complain,” he continued. “With the exception of playing Terry Sanford and Ardrey Kell, we were always within a goal or two in every game -- and I’m most most pleased with that. That’s promising for the future, and we just need to learn to finish out the last 10 minutes of games.”

The Raiders started the season 0-2 with two tough losses to Central Academy of Technology and Arts (3-1) and Porter Ridge High School (1-0), and midway through the season, they found themselves with a 5-8 overall record an on a three-game losing streak. That put Richmond on the outside looking in to make a run at the conference title, as well as making the state playoffs.

Larsen told his team they needed to win out the remaining seven conference games in order to be a contender -- and his team responded. In the final three weeks of the season, the Raiders went 7-0 and forced a tiebreaker with Hoke County to determine the second-place team for the playoffs.

The run started with an exciting 3-1 victory over the Bucks in the lone penalty kick game of the year, and Richmond outscored its opponents 33-4 in that span. The team also notched four of its six total shutouts on the year during the home stretch, with senior striker Carlos Alcocer scoring a team-high seven goals in seven games. Fellow senior Alexis Gonzalez had six goals in seven games, including the team’s only hat trick against Scotland High School.

Also impressive with putting the ball in the back of the net to close out the season was junior midfielder Noah Jordan, whose two two-goal games helped him notch five scores. Juniors Luke Hawks and Steven Morales each had four goals, Lee Hayden had two, and five other players had one goal.

“The team was happy to finish second, especially after finishing fifth last year,” Larsen said. “Every year with our skill level and the amount of community support we have, I think we should be able to contend for a conference championship. Whenever you can make state playoffs, that shows the work that the guys put in in June and July has paid off. It also shows you’re one of the top 48 teams in the state, and getting the opportunity to play extra soccer was a win within itself.

“With this group of guys being my first team (as a varsity head coach), I was very pleased that whatever I was trying to do, the guys were open to doing it,” he added. “They were all team players and willing to try something new.”

Wanting to institute a slight culture change, Larsen saw all of his players buy into what direction he wanted the program to head in. He explained there was “a lot of excitement throughout the season,” and that one thing he tried to do as a coach was play every player in almost every game. A “deeper bench” allowed him to do that, which is what he credited the scoring surge and the winning streak to at the end of the season to.

While he explained that every game was important this year, Larsen noted two that stood out to him as being growing moments for his program. In the second game of the year, the Raiders lost 1-0 to highly ranked Porter Ridge High School -- a loss that Larsen called a “big stepping stone” to show his team could contend with any team it played.

The second game was played a couple of weeks later as Lee County High School, the No. 8 team in 3A competition, visited Rockingham. Thanks to what Larsen called an “out of body experience” by Hawks that saw him net two goals in 56 seconds, the Raiders upset the Yellow Jackets 2-1. Again, Larsen noted “every game we had an opportunity to win.”

This year’s team had eight seniors on it, and at the onset of the season, Larsen knew their experience would be what took the Raiders to the next level.

“At beginning of the year, I was open to see which goalie was willing to step up in the big moments, and Jackson Haley stepped his game up a lot this year and made athletic plays,” Larsen said of his senior keeper. “He kept us in a lot of games and he had a tremendous senior year. The same goes with Evan Hudson, Nolan Allen and Kyle Goodwin in the back -- those seniors were the big key with (junior) Drew Davis on defense.

“Alexis and Jose Fonseca played well in the midfield, and at the middle of the year, Carlos and Noah set the tempo and found the seams which made the difference in close games,” he continued. “Evyn Brower’s (outside midfielder) stats don’t show everything, but he had a big foot and played a lot of good balls with good vision that helped us score. This was a core group of seniors, but the juniors stepped up a lot when we needed them to.”

Alcocer and Gonzalez led the team in goals, as each found the back of the net 10 times during their respective senior campaigns. Hawks, who normally came in off the bench, had nine goals, while Morales finished with eight, also playing in reserve. Four other players scored at least three goals (Brower, Hayden, Hudson and Jordan), while the Raiders netted 50 total goals (2.4 goals per game).

Even though the season just ended, Larsen is already looking forward to coaching the girls program in the spring, as well as kickstarting the boys’ 2019 season.

“We have a solid group of juniors coming back next year, some guys who gave me solid minutes throughout this season,” Larsen said. “We won’t regress, we’ll just fill in with the guys who’re leaving. We should be able to maintain what we have going.

“I’d like to continue building the program and get more consistent play from the guys,” he concluded. “Then we can really start focusing on what it takes to get to the second and third round rounds of the playoffs. We’re headed in the right direction.”

ROSports will publish an All-Sandhills Athletic Conference team feature when the team is announced following the elimination/winning of the NCHSAA 4A state playoffs by Pinecrest High School.

Last modified on Thursday, 08 November 2018 10:23
Kyle Pillar

Sports Editor. IUP alumni. English teacher, Ninth Grade Academy. Sports guru. Eagle Scout. Motorcycle enthusiast. Pretend golfer. Avid reader. Pennsylvania native. 

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