A gaggle of players congregates by one of the goals. Some rocket shots at the net; some juggle a ball using their feet; two use a ball to play basketball on an invisible hoop.
The boys are preparing for the start of their postseason in the district tournament Saturday.
At 4:30 p.m., boys’ soccer coach Scott Wittenborn stands stoically in the middle of the field as the players begin to officially warm up. Whistles cut through the air in the background as the football team sprints on the track; the soccer players stretch out their quads and hamstrings to warm up and glance over at the runners.
Senior midfielder Matthew Cathro, sidelined by a calf injury, slowly and carefully limps to a chair set up on the field to watch the practice where he bounces a ball on the ground as Wittenborn gives instructions to the team.
Although the team has performed well this year, with a record of 20-4 in the regular season, Wittenborn is consistently trying to up the intensity of practices so the Bruins constantly improve.
“Let’s get this going. Everybody to their cones, on the jog, on the jog. Let’s go.” Wittenborn claps his hands together. “Ready, go. I don’t want to see any hands on your hips.”
Wittenborn critiques the players for standing flat-footed while passing.
“Everybody stand next to your cone; 50 jumps. Let’s go,” he barks.
Wittenborn claps his hands twice again. After a handful of missed shots in a 2 v. 2 game, Wittenborn criticizes the players for acting “too fancy.”
“We should’ve won that Monet game 10-1, but we missed this right here eight times, the simple [pass], the cross and then tap [the ball] in [the goal],” Wittenborn said. “Be quicker; we need to be transitioning; we can’t miss the simple ones.”
Throughout the rest of practice, Wittenborn stressed to his players the importance of sticking to the fundamentals of soccer. Wittenborn said the boys need to take what’s given to them by the other team and play with a more simple mindset.
“When we could make a simple pass, we try to dribble by three people,” Wittenborn said. “We try to make these crazy moves when a simple give and go [a triangular series of passes that allows an offensive player to go around a defender] would work. And so, just really getting us to kind of get back to the basics, pass and move, play strong defense. . . [It] relates directly back to practice when we have a wide-open shot and we kick it 50 feet over the goal.”
“When we could make a simple pass, we try to dribble by three people. We try to make these crazy moves when a simple give and go [a triangular series of passes that allows an offensive player to go around a defender] would work. And so, just really getting us to kind of get back to the basics, pass and move, play strong defense. . . [It] relates directly back to practice when we have a wide-open shot and we kick it 50 feet over the goal.”
Wittenborn highlighted the importance of activeness and communication. He tells his players to “be loud” and requires them to shout their score in a game or else it wouldn’t count.
“Just pass and move; that’s all I care about; pass and move,” Wittenborn said. “I don’t want people just standing.”
At the end of the practice, Wittenborn emphasized the team come out of the gates strong in the Battle game the day after the practice, rather than underestimating its opponents and starting slow.
“For some reason, we also play down. Let’s come out and assert our dominance,” Wittenborn said to his players. “Screw everybody else; let’s prove to ourselves we can dominate a soccer game.”
Wittenborn hopes to use practice, incentivizing intensity in drills, to iron out this recurring problem.
“We just got to stay focused on trying to get them in the mindset of having a dominant performance no matter who the competition is,” Wittenborn said. “And so just a lot of conversations. A lot of tonight, we worked way harder the day before [a game] than we usually do, just because I don’t want them taking it lightly.”
Cathro attributed the team’s 2-0 loss to Jefferson City to this mindset. The Bruins were coming off of a big win two games prior against Gateway Legacy Christian Academy, one of the top-ranked teams in the nation.
“The loss to Jeff City was a difficult one to take,” Cathro said. “We didn’t play our best, but I think it was an important loss to have. It gave us a reality check and will only make us stronger when we hopefully see them again in districts.”
Junior forward Jeremiah Johnson said the team has grown in resiliency when it gets down in a game or underperforms.
“The loss to Jeff City was a difficult one to take. We didn’t play our best, but I think it was an important loss to have. It gave us a reality check and will only make us stronger when we hopefully see them again in districts.”
“I think we have evolved in the fact that we are playing more calm even when we get scored on,” Johnson said. “Instead of panicking, we play as we would play if we were winning or tied.”
While there are still skills-based areas Wittenborn said the team needs to improve upon, his primary area of concern is the non-physical part of the game.
“I think with this group, as talented as they are, top to bottom it’s probably the most talented team I’ve ever had,” Wittenborn said. “Sometimes our spacing on the field isn’t great, but I’d say 90 percent of [our problems are] mental right now and being good teammates to each other, being smart players. And what I mean by that is not letting the other team get under our skin, not letting referees affect our emotions [and] being a little bit mentally strong because we’re going to have our toughest games of the year in the postseason, and we need to be ready to handle them.”
To improve upon this and build consistency, Cathro tries to use practice as a close simulation of a game.
“During practice, I try to act like I’m in a game so that when we get to the bigger games I feel more comfortable under a lot of pressure,” Cathro said.
Although the team stays focused when playing, Johnson said the camaraderie and positivity among the players is crucial to the Bruins’ success.
“In practice we work hard on doing things like movement, off the ball drills, finishing drills and set pieces to ready ourselves for the game, but I think the best way our team prepares for games is having fun,” Johnson said. “We play better when we are laughing and making jokes on the field.”
Although Wittenborn said the players are improving on bringing their in-game intensity to practice, he believes the team still has room to improve in that aspect.
“In practice we work hard on doing things like movement, off the ball drills, finishing drills and set pieces to ready ourselves for the game, but I think the best way our team prepares for games is having fun. We play better when we are laughing and making jokes on the field.”
“I still think [high effort in practice is] something we need to be working on every single day. I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” Wittenborn said. “We do a quote of the day every day and just try to have a focus. We’ve been very successful this year, in results-wise. But I don’t know if our process has been as good as other years. [So we shouldn’t be] satisfied with being 20-4, with being ranked third in the state. Because that’s not our end goal. Our end goal is to win state or have the best season possible. They’re all in.”
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