De La Salle Soccer: Season-in-Review


The Pilots' 2020 varsity soccer season was one that was defined by both adversity and many highlights.

The adversity was met right away, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of the first four games and multiple others along the way.

The Pilots, who were originally scheduled to kick off their season on Aug. 15 against Pontiac Notre Dame Prep, didn't play their first game until a week later (Aug. 22) when they traveled to Traverse City to take on Traverse City West.

The game was allowed to be played because Traverse City is located in Region 6 of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's COVID-19 reopening plan -- a region which had received the green light from her to start fall athletic events on time. 

Meanwhile, De La Salle, located in Warren, is part of Region 1 -- which wasn't allowed to have any game competition until Whitmer lifted restrictions with an executive order that was put in place Sept. 3.

It was an unusual path to getting a season off the ground, but it was well worth it, with the Pilots winning the season-opening contest, 5-2. 

They played one more game that same day in Traverse City, losing to Portage Central, 2-1.

After that, the Pilots had four straight games that were either canceled or postponed, including its Catholic League central division opener against Detroit U-D Jesuit and its second game of league play against Birmingham Brother Rice.

The off-time definitely wasn't easy for Pilots head man Thaier Mukhtar and his players to go through, but Mukhtar did his best to keep the 24 student-athletes on the team, including 16 seniors, optimistic that a full season would be played.

"We stayed positive. I just kept telling them every day at practice that we're going to have a complete season, someway, somehow," Mukhtar said. "We're going to see this thing through. And if we want to be prepared for a season, we're going to have to train like we're ready to play. We have to give our best over and over again. I never put any negative thoughts in their heads. I know some teams even stopped training, doubting that a season would go on. But, we went in every day like we had a game the next day. So, our mental state was simply we'll prepare for a season. And I tried to get all the negative thoughts out of their heads." 

After its two games played in northern Michigan on Aug. 22, the Purple and Gold didn't suit up for a regular season contest again until Sept. 9 at Fraser -- a 7-0 victory. 

The Fraser win marked the start of an 11-1-3 stretch for the Pilots, which featured strong play from the team's four captains -- seniors Gabe Lueck, Craig Fritz, Matt Rafferty and Spencer LeBeau -- and a variety of other student-athletes in their final year at the Collegiate, including Aidan Dankanics, Hayden Graham and Mark Tungul.

Mukhtar believes this successful period was also a result of the team gelling together, spearheaded by the team's deep class of seniors and Mukhtar's assistant coaching staff. 

"We had great senior leadership this year, and I'm blessed to have an outstanding coaching staff, including many guys that have been with me for many years," Mukhtar said. "We also brought in Matt Lentine, who was an all-state player and college player that played for me at Fraser, and he was a great addition to the coaching staff. But, I think it's also because of those seniors. I took a shot, and put 16 of them on the roster, with the idea that De La Salle is about brotherhood and that they're willing to fight for their brothers. They had paid their dues, and now, it was their time." 

This stretch included a terrific 6-1-2 mark at St. John Baptist de La Salle Field -- the Pilots' new home turf -- which served as the host site of DLS's state playoff district. 

Mukhtar's squad went on to win the district, defeating St. Clair Shores Lakeview in the district championship round, 7-0. 

The win gave the program its 29th overall district title and its third consecutive. 

Mukhtar & Co., with the victory, will also now forever be known as the first team to capture a district championship on St. John Baptist de La Salle Field. 

"I want to thank (DLS athletic director) Dennis Parks for making it happen," Mukhtar said. "I said to him, 'Hey, Sterling Heights took its name off of hosting a district. Can we put ours in? It'd be great to host districts, with it being the first year of our new stadium.' So, he put it in, and he got it. So, I want to thank him and give him credit for making it happen." 

The distinction is something that's very meaningful to Mukhtar.

"It was pretty awesome. To play at our field, a beautiful and big, wide field that ranks right up there with any stadium out there, it's just suited for us, with the space and width that we play with," Mukhtar commented. "It's good to be able to win at your home field -- and especially with it being St. John Baptist de La Salle Field. It shows that De La Salle is progressing and that we're trying to do what's best for our athletes." 

Next up for the Purple and Gold was a regional semifinal matchup with its CHSL Central division rival Detroit Catholic Central.

Mukhtar expected a "war" with the undefeated Shamrocks and got just that with the game going into overtime. 

The OT thriller, unfortunately, resulted in a 3-2 loss for the Pilots, leaving them with a final record of 15-3-3. 

It was a disappointing end to the season for the senior-laden team, but it didn't make Mukhtar any less proud of how much his guys overcame and still managed to accomplish despite the abnormal times.

"I'm very proud of them," Mukhtar commented. "You've got to give your opponent credit. CC came out in the second half very fired up. But, it was ultimately a game of inches. I'm very proud of my kids. They worked hard all season long, and they should be playing tonight (Thursday) for the regional championship."

It was a season unlike any other before it, with the delayed start, all the cancellations, and the mandated mask-wearing and other safety protocols established because of COVID-19. 

Certainly, it wasn't the most optimal way of navigating through a season.

Yet, as Mukhtar put it, "Unusual times call for unusual measures."

And boy, it sure does describe 2020 and the season that was for the Pilots varsity soccer team.

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