By Ray Hamill — Local soccer fans will get the opportunity to check out five Humboldt-Del Norte League teams in action this weekend at the annual early-season McKinleyville Invitational Soccer Tournament.
Cloverdale is also tentatively scheduled to compete as well.
And this year’s tournament represents a milestone for the MIST, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
“It’s a kind of a big one,” said McKinleyville head coach and tournament organizer Ryne Deppe.
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The tournament, which will be played on the two soccer fields at Mack High, kicks off on Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. with a pair of games, followed by two more at 5:45 p.m.
Play continues on Saturday, with games at 9 a.m., followed by playoffs for fifth- and third-place at 1 p.m. and the championship game at 3 p.m.
All six teams are scheduled to play three games apiece, giving players and coaches some much-needed early-season action as they finalize starting lineups and positioning.
Wide-open league race for 2018
The MIST will also serve as an early indicator as to what to expect this season in what is shaping up to be a wide-open race for the H-DNL.
“The league has never been so even,” said Deppe. “It’s almost a toss-up between ourselves, Arcata, and Fortuna … and Del Norte.”
All the top teams lost players to the Mad River Union travel team, each of whom will forego the prep season because of their travel team commitments, although Deppe believes that’s a good thing and will benefit the game here on the North Coast.
“It’s good to see Humboldt soccer is trying to work and compete like this,” he said.
Mack boys eye league crown
It’s been a long time since the McKinleyville Panthers managed to win a league title, but that might all be about to change this fall.
The Mack boys at the very least should be in contention, having built some momentum under Deppe over the past few years.
In addition, Fortuna, which has dominated the H-DNL in recent years, looks down a little, throwing the race wide open for 2018.
So why not the Panthers?
Numbers have been high for Mack, with 27 players on the roster.
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“This year we have a whole lot of kids,” Deppe said. “It’s been a great turnout for McKinleyville soccer.”
Among the key returning players is senior Alex Freitas, who will play center midfield as well as up front.
“At this point, he’s pretty much the emotional leader of our team,” Deppe said.
Also back are seniors center back Jair Gonzalez, forward Jackson Sandall and offensive midfielder/forward Richie Carpenter.
Deppe is also excited about the quality of his underclassmen.
“We have a great sophomore class coming back,” the third-year head coach said. “They played a lot as freshmen and we’re expecting a lot out of them. We expect our sophomores and underclassmen to step up. To take the next step.”
And the coach expects his squad to be in the mix this year.
“We think that we can compete for the league title this year,” Deppe said.
Last season, the Panthers were 10-8-2 overall, finishing third in league at 8-3-2.
Expectations always high at Arcata
When it comes to soccer, expectations are always high at Arcata High.
The perennial powerhouse has long been the measuring stick for other programs in the area, although in recent years Fortuna has challenged that supremacy, and even surpassed it.
This season, the two clubs look set to battle for the league title once again, with a couple of other teams likely to be in the mix as well.
The Tigers feature a relatively inexperienced roster, but that won’t dampen expectations.
“We’re young, and we had quite a few players leave this year,” head coach Ty Watkins said. “But I’m looking forward to it. We’ve got a lot of good kids on this team.”
Among the returning players Watkins will look to for some leadership, senior co-captain Zack Oakland is back at sweeper.
“He’s the rock for our defense,” Watkins said.
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Junior co-captain Jack Taylor is also back and expected to be a big contributor, as is sophomore goalie Marcus Bensen, a first-year varsity starter.
“Coming into tryouts, I didn’t know what to expect from (Bensen),” Watkins said. “But he really showed up ready to go. He obviously put the work in in the offseason.”
As for what he likes most about this year’s squad, Watkins believes their youth will work to their advantage.
“These guys are young and still excited about what’s to come,” the coach said. “They accept each new game as a challenge.”
Last season the Tigers finished 17-5-1 and made it to the second round of the North Coast Section playoffs. They were also second in league play (11-1-1).
Young Crusaders loaded with talent
The St. Bernard’s Crusaders will open the MIST against either McKinleyville or Arcata at 5:45 p.m. on Friday, giving head coach Brian Dunlap and his young roster their first taste of competitive action this season.
“The team looks good. We have a lot of talent,” Dunlap said. “But we have only one senior, so it’s a young team, and it’ll be a really strong team for the next few years.”
The Crusaders also feature some international exchange students on a roster of 16, including at least two the coach expects big things from.
Team leaders Joseph Luna and Jon Andre each return for their junior years and will be relied on to set the tone on such a young squad.
Luna will help anchor the defense, while Andre will start between the posts.
“We have a good mix,” Dunlap said. “These guys all get along well. And they’re ready to go when I get to practice … and that comes from these two leaders.”
A number of talented freshmen will also see plenty of action, including Logan Juchtzer, who will split time in goal, as well as Logan Casucci in midfield.
The lone senior of the squad is Tech Leang from Cambodia.
“He’s a kid that’s so coachable,” Dunlap said. “His skills are incredible and he sees the field really well.”
South Korean forward Chris Tai will also see plenty of game time up front for the Crusaders.
“He’s something special,” Dunlap said. “He’s got incredible talent and skills and he likes to take players on one-on-one.”
An intra-squad scrimmage on Tuesday was a big success, according to the coach, with freshman Garrett Sobol netting the winning goal off a rocket of a shot.
“They’re a strong team,” Dunlap said, emphasizing the word “team.” “They get along so well, and there aren’t any individuals.”
As for the season, Dunlap expects his team to cause the bigger schools in the H-DNL some problems.
“It is going to be a learning year because they are a young team,” the coach said. “But I think these guys will be a force to deal with.”
Last season, the Crusaders finished 5-13, including a 4-9 record in league.
Huskies look to continue recent dominance
The Huskies got the season off to a winning start at home to Willits on Tuesday evening, running out to a 4-0 victory.
Fortuna has dominated the local league in recent years, while also reaching three consecutive North Coast Section semifinals, including clinching a Section title two years ago.
This year, however, the Huskies feature a largely new lineup and whether they can continue the program’s dominance remains to be seen.
“I’m expecting the young guys to fill some holes,” head coach Daniel Holmes said. “They’ve got some big shoes to fill, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do.”
The Huskies, however, still have some work to do on conditioning, after cramping up well before full-time in Tuesday’s win, something Holmes will be addressing at practice this week.
“There are definitely things we have to work on,” the coach said.
Leading the way this season will be senior defender Jackson Fairbanks, who got the season off to an impressive start on Tuesday.
“He played great,” Holmes said.
Also expected to play major roles this fall for the Huskies are the Atilano brothers, senior Luis and sophomore Fernando.
The older brother scored three times in the win, all in the first half, with Jesse Herrera netting the fourth after the break.
“We had a nice first half,” Holmes said. “We’re still trying to fit the puzzle pieces where they need to be.”
And with a young lineup, the Huskies likely will be trying to figure out those pieces for the opening part of the season.
“I think it’s going to be fluid for the next two to three weeks,” the coach said. “They’re still fighting for the starting spots.”
The Huskies open this weekend’s tournament against the Loggers on Friday at 2 p.m., and Holmes and his players are looking forward to the opportunity.
“We want more touches on the ball, and we’re just trying to build the team,” Holmes said. “And it’ll be nice to see the other competition in the league.”
The long-time Fortuna head coach expects this year’s H-DNL to be close, but also expects his team to be in the mix.
“I think it’s competitive,” he said. “But I think we’ve got some pieces and will still be able to compete.”