On a cool Saturday morning in late July, the Paul Laurence Dunbar boys’ soccer team scrimmages against itself on the turf of Jon R. Akers Stadium.
At a glance, the varsity players each appear to be about the same height. They’re fit, athletic (of course), and all neatly clad in red practice shirts and white shorts.
In the quiet between the kicked balls and the player chatter, you can hear the faint chime of the marching band’s metronome as it practices in an adjacent parking lot.
Dunbar, like the metronome, sets the tempo for boys’ soccer in Lexington and the 11th Region: a nearly relentless, steady beat under the direction of Todd Bretz, the only coach it’s had since the school opened in 1990.
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The Bulldogs are four-time state champions, the last coming in 2013. They’ve won four of the last five 11th Region titles. And even though no city coach really knows what they have this early, many say Dunbar will be the team to beat again.
Across town, Henry Clay’s second-year coach, Jason Behler, sets up his varsity practice on a late Monday morning.
It’s quite a bit warmer. The band’s metronome sits closer here and resonates much louder. “I hear it in my sleep,” Behler groans with a laugh. The players, dressed in whatever workout gear was clean that morning, hustle about on a grass field in front of the school.
The Blue Devils have their own style and rhythm and a proud soccer tradition, as well, with two state titles and a 2015 11th Region crown that saw them reach the state finals when Behler was an assistant. Before regional realignment in 2012, Henry Clay made regular appearances in the state tournament.
Behler thinks this bunch is poised to make another deep postseason run.
“I’ve got a huge and experienced senior class that’s ready to put their imprint on the Henry Clay history pages with a great season, I think,” he said. “We’re bringing back an experienced team that lost a tough game to Dunbar in the regional semifinal, but I think it was just as good as any team in the region last year.
“And I think we can compete with anybody in the region this year.”
For coaches such as Bretz and Behler, it’s about making their teams the best they can be, whether or not that yields something for the trophy case.
“We don’t set goals in specifics,” Bretz said. “We set goals in development. … Our overall goal every year is to play that final game. That, hopefully, is a given. And in that, how well can we develop as a team?”
No tougher region
Last season, the 11th Region boasted 10 top-50 teams in the Maher Rankings which gauge the strength of high school teams in Kentucky and Ohio. Six of those were from Lexington with Dunbar (6) and Lafayette (9) cracking the top 10. No region had more highly rated teams. Only the Louisville-centered 7th Region came close with seven. Two other regions had four.
Dunbar and Henry Clay might end up battling it out for the 11th’s state bid, but Lafayette Coach Chris Grimm sees a wide-open race, filled with opportunity.
“There’s one or two schools that have a good amount coming back at certain positions, but overall, everybody’s going to be a brand-new team this year,” Grimm said, “which makes it kind of exciting, because you don’t really know how things are going to go during the season.”
Henry Clay returns all-city selections in seniors Ethan MacGillivray (second team all-state), Henry Macfarlan and Colby Rose. who have been playing varsity since they were sophomores and were an integral part of the 2015 finals team. Add to that senior midfielder Nafiz Budeiri, a transfer from Madison Central who scored five goals and had five assists for the Indians last season.
“If this team’s not successful, that’s completely on me because we’ve got all the pieces to be very good,” Behler said.
Dunbar brings back all-state keeper Josh Szydlik and all-city midfielder Eddy Andrade and will look for scoring from junior forward Pedro Jaminiz and leadership out of seniors Jackson Akins and Sullivan Curd.
At Bryan Station, fifth-year coach Manes Preptit’s Defenders will be led by Diallo Irakoze, Enoc Moma and all-city selection Eddy Irumva.
“Diallo’s just been a menace since he came out here last year. Every team is going to be watching him,” Preptit said.
Lafayette graduated 11 seniors off, maybe, the best team in program history, and will be looking to rebuild around senior Max Nusbacher, who earned honorable mention all-city and all-state honors as a defensive midfielder. This season, he’ll be on the attack.
“We expect him to have a big year and do a lot of things for us,” Grimm said.
Nusbacher will be connecting with Sydney Lee, who led the team in assists despite coming off the bench some as a junior. Ty Matthews and John Barton anchor the center of the Generals’ defense.
Lexington Catholic seniors Tyler Kennedy (first team all-city, second team all-state) and Keegan Bailey (honorable mention all-city, all-state) and junior Jackson Kirn (honorable mention all-city) will be among the leaders for a Knights team that’s not as experienced as past years, Coach Jonathan Kincheloe said.
“(They’re) pushing each other every day and they’re being positive,” he said. “Last year, at this point, we had a lot of negativity because we weren’t where we wanted to be, where we needed to be. But this year, it’s been a lot of positive feedback. Everybody knows what we lost and knows what we have to do to recover.”
Lexington Christian seniors Bradley Hargis and Tyler Dobbs and junior Phillip Scott earned all-city recognition in 2016 and have a new coach in Odie Guzman. Guzman said freshman midfielder Tacobi Nsimpasi will be a major factor, as well. Guzman expects “Taco and Tyler” to fuel the attack.
“Both of them will give us a lot of ideas up top and a lot of chances for our forwards and outside midfielders,” he said.
Tates Creek relied on youth last season and Coach Albert Gross expects that to begin paying dividends.
Ben Kaindu, who led Tates Creek in scoring as a freshman, combines sophomores Luke Harrington, Moses Nzilamba and Spencer Waldrop, who each saw a lot of minutes last year. Dozier Combs, a senior, will anchor the defense.
“Ben has a very good physical frame to him, great technical skill and one-v-one he can beat one and two defenders at one time,” Gross said. “His unique ability as a striker is to actually find the open man. … But he also possesses the ability to finish when he needs to.”
Schedules are still being filled out, but some big games are set.
Lexington Soccer Showcase: Many of the top teams in the state come to Lexington for a two-day event, Aug. 18-19 at various sites. Teams include Bowling Green, Bryan Station, Frederick Douglass, Henry Clay, Ryle, South Oldham, Tates Creek and Woodford County.
Lexington Christian at Dunbar: Under a new coach, the Eagles seemed eager to take on the Bulldogs, Aug. 24.
Dunbar at Henry Clay: Matchup with the Bulldogs should reveal if the Blue Devils are for real, Aug. 29.
Bryan Station at Scott County: The Defenders won the regular-season matchup 3-0 last year, but fell in the 42nd District semis on PKs. “We’re looking for revenge this year,” Station’s Preptit said of the Sept. 5 rematch and beyond. “I’ve been talking to (Nick) Maxwell, the Scott County coach. He’s got plans for us, and we’ve got plans for him.”
Madison Central at Lafayette: The Indians ended the Generals’ magic season in the opening round of the 11th Region tourney last year. The rematch is Sept. 26.
Anybody vs. Collegiate: If you follow soccer and haven’t heard of Louisville recruit Haji Abdikadir, you soon will. The 18-year-old senior All-American who moved to the United States as a Kenyan refugee at 8, scored 40 goals for the sudden 7th Region power last year.
In last year’s All “A” Classic tournament, LCA had the misfortune of facing Collegiate in the title game. The Eagles lost 11-1.
Collegiate’s full schedule has not been posted, but if they get anywhere close, check out Abdikadir.
Bryan Station Defenders
Coach: Manes Preptit (fifth season).
Last season, 42nd District: 8-8-2 (34 GF/40 GA*) lost on penalty kicks in district semis to Scott County.
Outlook: The Defenders are coming on strong, and should best last season’s mark and contend for a spot in regional.
Player’s take: “We look forward to the challenge. We don’t shy away from that at all. We know that we’re in a tough city and a tough district, so, we just like the competition.” — Omar Bojang, senior.
Coach: Omar Shalash (first season).
Last season, 42nd District: This is Douglass’s first year as a program.
Outlook: A glance at the Douglass schedule indicates Shalash is trying to show his young team how to best go about their business. With one senior, this season is about the future.
Player’s take: “I’m excited to play at Frederick Douglass. It’s a new team, and we’re getting better each day. And maybe we can go far if we’re a close group.” — Fernando Amador, senior.
Henry Clay Blue Devils
Coach: Jason Behler (second season).
Last season, 42nd District champion: 11-10-1 (48 GF/30 GA), lost 2-1 in region semis to Dunbar.
Outlook: Blue Devils have reason to feel confident about contending for the 11th Region title and beyond.
Player’s take: “I think with a strong senior class we definitely have a lot that can build around us and make some noise.” — Colby Rose, senior.
Coach: Chris Grimm (10th season).
Last season, 43rd District: 16-6-1 (43 GF/18 GA), lost on penalty kicks in region first round to Madison Central.
Outlook: The Generals need a lot of younger players to step up this season around Max Nusbacher and Sydney Lee.
Player’s take: “I think we can be a good team if we play well together. Our two center backs were very good for us last season and they’re both returning.” — Max Nusbacher, senior.
Lexington Catholic Knights
Coach: Jonathan Kincheloe (sixth season)
Last season, 43rd District: 10-8-3 (44 GF/43 GA) lost 1-0 in district semis to Dunbar.
Outlook: Knights have an excellent core of players, but some questions they’ll need to answer as season progresses.
Player’s take: “We lost a lot of our older players last year, so our team’s really young this year. Most of our starting lineup is going to be underclassmen, but I think it’s going to look good by the end of the season.” — Tyler Kenney, senior.
Lexington Christian Eagles
Coach: Odie Guzman (first season).
Last season, 43rd District: 11-9-1 (45 GF/41 GA), lost 2-0 in district semis to Lafayette.
Outlook: Players say they feel more confident than ever under new coach and expect to contend for a region slot.
Player’s take: “High pressure … is what we have to do. LCA is not a powerhouse name for high school soccer, so you’ve got to bring some intensity and shake some teams up.” — Tyler Dobbs, senior.
Paul Laurence Dunbar Bulldogs
Coach: Todd Bretz (28th season).
Last season, 43rd District, 11th Region champion: 19-6-2 (56 GF/23 GA), lost 5-1 in state semis to Daviess County.
Outlook: The Bulldogs have one of the best keepers in the state, their usual batch of skilled players and Bretz. Never down. Rarely out.
Player’s take: “Our goal is obviously to win state and just go all the way. It’s what I’ve been wanting to do all four years. ... We’ve got chemistry this year.” — Josh Szydlik, senior.
Coach: Joseph Porter (10th season).
Last season, 42nd District: 4-10-0 (29 GF/33 GA), lost 5-0 in district semis to Henry Clay.
Outlook: With only three seniors, Spartans look to build depth and confidence for the future around sophomore striker Roan Sanders.
Player’s take: “I’m excited for the challenge we’re going to have because we have a lot of room to build with this team.” — Parker Dean, senior
Tates Creek Commodores
Coach: Albert Gross (fourth season).
Last season, 43rd District: 6-12-0 (26 GF/41 GA), lost 2-1 in district first round to Lexington Christian.
Outlook: Commodores’ youth gained experience last year and that should equal more wins and a chance to contend for a spot in the regional.
Player’s take: “I’m looking forward to rematching LCA. We lost to them in district, and we need to get our revenge. I’m looking forward to try to get out of district. I think this year we could.” — Ben Kaindu, sophomore.
*GF: Goals For/GA: Goals Against