When the dust settled following South Mecklenburg’s 4-0 loss to rival Myers Park in the Class 4A Western Regional sectional game, Sabres coach Eric White said the explanation for the season-ending defeat was simple.
“We weren’t mentally ready for that playoff game last season,” White said. “I thought we were fine throughout the season, I don’t think we lost any games that we shouldn’t have and we were competitive in everything, but in that quarterfinal playoff game we absolutely weren’t ready.”
The Sabres had finished the season 17-5-3 and already dropped two games to the Mustangs – a 1-0 loss on Sept. 25 and a 2-1 loss a month later – but how they finished the playoff game still sticks in the craw of White and the seven starters his team returns from last year. Instead of sulking and thinking what could’ve been, White said players started thinking about this season the moment the playoff game ended.
“The seniors have made a point of (using that as motivation),” White said. “We’re going to focus on every game like it’s a playoff match, so that may be a positive in the end. I hope so, at least.”
With a good portion of the Sabres’ lineup intact from last season, and with motivation stemming from a crushing defeat still fresh on their minds, the Sabres again enter the season with high hopes.
South Meck is ranked No. 6 in Eurosportscorecard.com’s preseason poll and although the prognosticators are predicting success, expectations are even higher amongst the players themselves.
“For the seniors, it’s our last year and we want to give it our all,” said senior striker Chris Brown. “The competition in practice so far has been really good. Everyone wants to be on the field so we all push each other and that helps us make sure our work rate is always high.”
Brown is one of several key attackers who’ll have an impact this year as the Sabres return nearly their entire front line from a team that should see an increase in scoring from the 65 goals they tallied last year.
Joining Brown up front is senior center-attacker Milton Espinoza and senior forward Axel Rojas, who was one of two Sabres named to the N.C. Soccer Coaches’ Association All-State team a season ago.
“Axel is dynamic with the soccer ball,” White said. “ He’ll be a really big part of what we do. He brings great senior leadership, he can distribute, and he can score goals, which is his main job, but he can do it all on the field.”
It’s up to Rojas and the rest of the senior leaders to help the Sabres overcome lapses like they suffered in the playoffs last year.
So far, they’re off to a good start.
South Meck faced Hough, who ranked 13th in the preseason poll, in a recent preseason scrimmage. Before long, and like a twisted reminder of last season, the Sabres found themselves in an early 3-0 hole.
“Last year, we were too confident in those losses and came out with our heads up too high. It wasn’t us those days we lost,” Rojas said. “In the scrimmage, we were down 3-0 and, as a captain, I had to motivate the guys and make sure everyone had their heads up.”
The Sabres rallied, and before halftime had taken a lead in a game they’d eventually win, 7-4.
“We didn’t let anybody drop down their effort,” Rojas said. “If someone made a mistake we (encouraged) them to do better. We told them what we expected and asked them to improve in the second half. We never let anybody get down, and that’s a strength of this team.
“We’re an amazing team when everyone’s on the same page.”
While the offense, with its starting front intact from last year, is a strong point, White’s hoping the defense can come together after losing four starters – including all-state defender Josh Laney.
White said Sean Grune will get the first chance to replace Laney, but the defense will be a team effort where everyone will have to pitch in for the Sabres to be successful.
“Josh Laney is a big loss, but we’ll make up for him,” White said. “Sean Grune is taking over, he’s a big-time senior and he’ll take over for Josh, but those are tough shoes to fill.
“We’re going to defend from front to back so we have to know that our attacking players are going to defend as well, but we do have some very skilled attackers. Really, we have a very good mix of attacking players and those hard-nosed defensive-type players that we’re going to need.”
New goalkeeper Nick Marston said the key for maintaining the success of a team that’s gone 54-13-7 over the last three seasons is to keep their team-first attitude White has helped develop.
“Right now we need to concentrate on each game as it comes and continue to build on what we’ve done,” White said. “We want to start by winning every game.”
The Sabres began the season in solid fashion, blanking Rocky River, 9-0, on Aug. 21 behind two goals apiece from Espinoza and Rojas.
This year they’ll be in the Southern Meck 8 conference this season and although Myers Park, the Sabres’ biggest rival, won’t be in their league, there’s plenty of competition to keep South Meck sharp.
“We’ll lose some big rivalry games,” White said. “It was always fun to have Myers Park and play against them, but now we gain Charlotte Catholic twice. I think our conference will still be good and exciting and will stay very competitive.
“But our first goal is to win the conference, absolutely.”
The Sabres know they have the talent on both sides of the ball to claim the first-ever Southern Meck 8 conference title. Strengthened by the vow they made to one another after the playoff loss as motivation, the Sabres should be standing tall at the end of the year.
“The thing we really need to concentrate on is keeping our work levels up and making sure the other team doesn’t out work us,” Brown said. “Once you stop moving, teams will play around us. But if we keep at it, we’re strong.
“We’re not going to let (a game like the playoff loss) happen again. We know what we want and what we have to do to achieve it.”