If this season of Spartan boys soccer had a theme, that would be it.
“They’re having a ton of fun, you can see the smiles out here, but they’re busting their butts, too. And that’s perfect, that’s what we want,” said Bainbridge High School boys varsity soccer team Head Coach Drew Keller.
“A coaching colleague of mine, Ian McCallum, he was the former head coach and ‘Serious fun’ was one of his lines,” Keller explained.
“They’re light-hearted, they’re having fun, they’re joking around with each other. But, at the same time, they’re pushing each other really hard and themselves as well. That’s the perfect balance.”
This year marks Keller’s second season at the helm, leading a senior-heavy squad of mostly returning players in a quest to surmount last year’s slump (5-9-2) and restore some shine to the Spartan reputation amidst the notoriously tough landscape of the Metro League.
“I think last year we probably didn’t meet expectations, certainly not mine,” the coach said. “That being said, when you look at the results I don’t know that we lost a game by many. We maybe lost one game by two goals, but it was very tight. That’s the thing; it’s fine margins so you got to take every chance you get. That’s certainly something we learned last year.
“Every goal counts — every inch counts in this league.”
This year’s roster boasts eight seniors, seven juniors, one sophomore and one freshman, an elite group selected from a record-high number of hopefuls.
“Huge turnout at tryouts; I think when it was all said and done we had over 70 kids come out,” Keller said. “It’s great but it’s tough. We only have 53 or so spots, so that makes it challenging just because we’d like to get as many kids playing as we can.
“I don’t really define the number of kids from each class that I want,” he added. “I just try to pick what I think are the most prepared 17 or so kids. I took a little bit smaller squad this year because I want them playing. I picked guys that I intend to play regularly and get them in form and I’d prefer the guys that are next up be getting their minutes on JV and ready for call-ups, because it’s such a condensed and physical league. I’ve never seen a season without some injuries. So surely we’ll need to call some guys up at some point.”
Most of the upperclassmen know each other very well, and have been playing together for years, both in the regular season and in local club leagues, and the perspective from the field is already optimistic.
“I think the work ethic is looking better; we have a strong team this year,” said senior co-captain Max Johnson. “In terms of strengths, I think we work a lot harder than last year. Last year we lost some games because of one or two lazy efforts. That’s all it takes to lose a game.”
Fellow senior co-captain David Nikunen agreed, saying there was at least one other lesson learned last season the team was looking to put into practice.
“I think we got a lot of driven guys, so we’re looking to make the run this year,” he said.
“Last year Ballard or Blanchet, one of the two, had a 14-0 run with that kid that went D-1 and had a pretty big ego about it. So we’re trying to be those guys but without the ego. We want to come out here and get the business done and be quiet about it.”
Of the returning coach, Nikunen said Keller’s mix of authority and conversational camaraderie was appreciated by the team, especially the more seasoned players.
“He’s very aware of what we think,” Nikunen said. “It’s really easy to talk to him. He knows all of us; he makes sure that he takes our position into consideration when making a formation, when doing drills, in game tactics.”
Keller is likewise aware of the work that had gone into this season even before tryouts, and he was duly impressed.
“Some of the older group has been doing off-season training. Captains’ Practice, they call it,” he said. “They’ve been doing that since November, been in the weight room, doing some yoga.
“It’s a really disciplined group; they’re very self-motivated. They want it. It’s one of those things where, regardless of what I desire for them — it needs to come from them for it to really stick, and so I credit the leadership on the team for really setting that bar. And the guys are maintaining it.”
He credited Johnson and Nikunen with doing the lion’s share of tone-setting so far.
“Strong leadership this year; the captains are setting a high bar for future captains with just taking initiative early on and setting the tone and you see it,” Keller said. “I’ve seen it. This is our [first week] out here and they’re working really hard. They’re ready and willing to put the work in and they know that’s necessary because it’s such a competitive league that if you’re not, somebody else is.”
The Spartan season begins Saturday, March 9 with a non-league match at home, at 5 p.m., against Chief Sealth, and doesn’t let up (not even during Spring Break, a change to the schedule this year) until early May. Regardless of the opponent though, be the match at home or away, Keller said he isn’t overly concerned with what happens within the league beyond the island team’s latest performance.
“I learned a lot last year,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t really look at that just because what I learned last year is: There are six or eight teams that could compete for the league title, if not more. So you have to play every game like you need the best result out of it.”