WARREN, Mich. - To say the 2019 De La Salle Collegiate varsity soccer team hit a few road bumps this past season might be a bit of an understatement.
But that didn't stop the Pilots from making the most of a tough situation.
Battling injuries throughout, coach Thaier Mukhtar's squad reached double digits in the win column, narrowly missed winning a Catholic League title, and captured a Division 1 district championship along the way.
This year's 11-8-4 record was a bit deceiving. At times, injuries presented a challenge for the Pilots to field a full team. Add to that a very challenging schedule which included seven games against ranked opponents, not including a pair of matches against league foe U-D Jesuit, which was ranked at the time. And the Pilots also made a road trip to Indiana, where they faced some stiff competition while competing in the Great Midwestern Classic.
"I truly believe, in my heart, that this team had just as good of a chance to finish as good as last year's. I really believe that," said Mukhtar, who's 2018 squad won 19 games and reached the state semifinals. "Every year, I always think that the next year we're going to win the state championship. Our goal, our mission never stops, never waivers. It's to be the best."
This year's team included 10 seniors. They included Luke Kassin, Saimer Kiryakoza, Logan Manor, Scott Larson, Jett Schodowski, Thomas Turner, Jack Panos, Joseph Nicolella, Connor Jasman, and Alexander Teftsis.
It was a talented group, for sure. Turner earned All-Catholic, all-district, all-regional and honorable mention all-state honors and was named Most Valuable Player at the team's recent banquet. Panos was the team's offensive MVP, while Jasman earned that honor on the defensive side of the ball. Tefsis and Schodowski were the MVPs of the midfield. Manor took home the Brother Bob Carnaghi Award, while Larson - who battled injuries most of the season - won the Coaches' Award. Jasman and Tefsis also earned all-league honors, while Teftsis, Manor, Kassin, Jasman, Panos, and Schodowski were selected to the all-district team.
"I'm very proud of my boys. Never in 37 years as a varsity coach have I ever gone through a season with so many injuries," Mukhtar said. "Out of 24 varsity players, we only had five play in every game, which is unheard of. That's how much injuries took their toll on this team. I never use injuries as an excuse and I never did during the season. But when you sit and look back at it now, boy, would it have been nice to have a 6-foot-6 Scott Larson up against the trees that Troy Athens threw against us (in the regional final)."
The silver lining with all those injuries was that the underclassmen had a chance to step up and gain some valuable experience.
"Not having a lot of seniors out on the field at times and having some out with injuries kind of opened the door for some of our younger players to get some experience. They'll be better off next year for that," the coach admitted.
Among the juniors who played a big role this year were CJ Fritz, Matthew Rafferty, Gabriel Lueck and Spencer LeBeau. All four earned all-district honors, with Fritz being selected Most Improved Midfielder for his team.
"I'm expecting C.J. to come in and take over for Tommy up top, put balls in the back of the net, really dominate our forward line," Mukhtar said. "Matt and Gabe will be third-year varsity players. Matt can play anywhere in the field. Gabe will be on defense, but may play some in the midfield to help offset some of the offense we lose to graduation. And Spencer, who I thought at times was the best player on the field for us this year, will play some center mid for us.
"When you lose guys like Jack Panos, Tommy Turner and Alex Teftsis in the middle, and Jett Schodowski, you've got to have guys ready to step in. We will lean heavily on those four guys, as well as some others."
Fritz, Rafferty, Lueck and LeBeau are among 14 players expected back next year.
"There were a lot of guys who were juniors who had their first chance to play varsity this year and I think we're going to have to lean on them as well next year," Mukhtar said. "There's Hayden Graham, you've got Aidan Dankanics, Mark Tungul, Francesco Pizzo, Jonathan Heppler, and on and on. We've got these guys who were waiting for others to graduate so they can have their chance to step up.
"Sometimes in sports, you just need that little opening to push through the door and demonstrate what you can do."
And of course there is a lot of talent on its way up from the two junior varsity squads. The JV-A team finished 9-1-4 and captured the Catholic League title with a 5-0-1 record. The JV-B team was 10-4-5 and shared its league title with Catholic Central.
"Both coaches did a great job, so we've got a lot of nice talent coming in," Mukhtar said. "They do a great job just preparing the kids. Sometimes you have programs where the JV teams are isolated and do their own thing. But we have coaches who know what I'm looking for and their main goal is to prepare these boys to play for me. Frank (Schodowski) and Sean (Mukhtar) do a great job."