University boys soccer coach Mitch Weller summed it up best.
“The Dwight Merkel Sports Complex has saved our varsity nonleague games thus far,” he said.
Not the kind of thing you normally expect to hear from a Spokane Valley coach about a North Side facility, but then again this hasn’t been anything close to a normal early season thus far.
And it says a great deal about the advantages of artificial turf fields – playing surfaces that aren’t tied to a spring thaw in order to be used for a game.
If it weren’t for turf playing surfaces like the one at Merkel, area teams would still be idled almost two full weeks into the season – waiting for their natural grass surface to be playable. Muddy to the point where white game socks may never look the same again, but playable.
“It looks like it’s going to be after spring break before we can play on our own field,” Weller said. “There’s just the two fields at Merkel for everyone to try to get in games. Albi Stadium hasn’t been available yet and Gonzaga Prep hasn’t been ready either.”
Soccer teams all over the area have been juggling time in the gym with all the other spring sports and trying to get on the field at an indoor facility when it’s available. That sometimes means holding practice before school starts because the gym is available.
Many teams around the area are facing this unusual situation: The first time they will set foot on an actual, playable field – be it baseball, softball or soccer – is for their first game.
“We use our warm-up time on the turf to essentially have practice,” Weller said. “That has been our only time outside.”
The Titans have a talented, experienced core of players back this season after they finished 4-5-0-0 in league last spring and ended with a 2-1 loss to Central Valley in a district tournament play-in game.
Midfielder Cole Dobson and defender Zach Mattson both are returning All-Greater Spokane League selections, while forward Fraser Robertson and goalkeeper Jaymon Manzi were second-team All-GSL picks. Junior midfielder Altyn Cader and senior defender Tyler Adams both are returning starters.
That group has allowed the Titans to be a little flexible and fluid with their game. And Weller said he’s been asking players to be patient as he sorts through who should be varsity and who plays on the JV.
“Even playing indoors at the soccer center is not like playing outside on turf,” he said. “And it will be completely different when we finally get out on a grass field. We’ve asked some of our bubble guys to be patient while we get through this and we’ve tried to get those guys into games as much as we can to see what they can do.”
Going from a fast surface like artificial turf to a muddy grass field will present its own set of challenges.
Weller said building a winning culture has been the goal of the program overall, and his returning players have bought into that plan and he’s pleased with the progress they’ve made.
“We definitely have a good core of leadership and guys who are going to step up and rise to the occasion,” he said. “These guys are character guys and they are willing to put in the work.”
Central Valley has established that kind of culture under veteran coach Andres Monrroy.
The Bears’ string of four straight state trophies was snapped a year ago, when the team finished fourth in league with a 6-2-0-1 record. Last year’s season ended in the district tournament.
CV graduated last year’s Greater Spokane League offensive MVP, Devin Hauenstein, as well as first-team All-GSL forward Connor Wold.
Still, the Bears bring back a pair of second-team All-GSL picks from last year in defenders Nikita Susin and Josh Hermes and honorable mention defender Reece Bumgarner and midfielder Ben Church.
East Valley has a history of playing its best soccer at the end of the season, a reputation it bolstered last spring when the Knights, who finished third in the Great Northern League during the regular season, charged into the state Class 2A tournament, where they lost in the first round to Franklin Pierce to end a 4-6-2-0 season.
The Knights graduated two first-team All-Great Northern League midfielders from a year ago in Zach Bowsky and Joseph Gresch, and second-team defender Colton Sior was a second-team pick.
Two more starters from a year ago, defender Isaiah Hutton and forward Deiby Bernadez, transferred.
Defender Giuliano Dinaro, a senior who was a second-team All-GNL honoree a year ago returns to anchor the defense. Returning starter Treven Larsen returns in the midfield and Everado Vargas is back in goal.
So far this season, the Knights lost a 1-0 decision to North Central but they erupted for six goals in a win over Gonzaga Prep in nonleague games. Isdro Vargas had four goals against G-Prep and Kirill Kuznetsov scored the other two.
West Valley graduated three All-Great Northern League honorees from its defensive back line from a year ago: first-teamers Tajadin Mohammed and Chase Howat and second-team pick Drake Pederson.
Second team All-GNL goalkeeper Michael Hartis Jr. returns.
The Eagles battled North Central to a 3-3 draw in the first half of a nonleague match at Merkel, but NC scored or three goals in the second to take a 6-3 win.