They got a taste of the State 4A soccer tournament last year, and the Wood River High School boys found they liked it.
After three straight losing seasons, the Wolverines (14-5-3) jumped back in the saddle and made the state tournament for the first time since 2005 under Great Basin Conference "Coach of the Year" Luis Monjaras.
What's next? Second-year head coach Monjaras said, "We'll work toward getting one step further than we got last year for state. We're ready for the challenge, and I think the experience we got will help us."
Monjaras has welcomed 44 players to pre-season practices, with the 14-game campaign debuting Friday, Aug. 20 at the best 4A boys' program in the Boise Valley—the Skyview Hawks, winners of six consecutive Third District titles.
Wood River, starting its 25th season of soccer, has made 18 state tournament trips. But the Wolverines had never beaten Skyview in six meetings until last season's 3-0 season opener in Hailey. Monjaras' squad also beat Skyview 3-2 for its only win in the state tourney. Skyview (17-3-0) finished 0-2.
Monjaras said, "We'll be missing a few players for the Skyview game, with vacations and skiing and a college trip. But we have a tough league as always." And Wood River has three Great Basin games before school begins Tuesday, Sept. 7.
Although Wood River (239-147-37 since 1986) lost first-team All-Leaguers Colter Brehmer (four-year keeper), Morgan Pike (9 goals), Cody Phelps and Hector Lopez (team-high 14 goals), the Wolverines have greeted 10 seniors to get the new season off to a good start.
"It's a big deal for us to replace those six seniors," Monjaras said. "We lost Cody back on defense, but our defense looks solid with height and speed in the back. Our keeper, junior Dylan Carey, is a newcomer, but he has the tools."
Defenders include sophomore Trevor Brand, senior Benito Reveles, senior Spyder Turco, senior Harlan Collins, sophomore Zack Freeman, junior Nathan Moses and junior Luis Lopez. Turco and Freeman were second-team All-Leaguers last fall for Hailey.
Last year's top midfielder in team awards, senior Bryan Donoso (11 goals), is joined by last year's "Most Improved" team player, senior Alexander MacMillan, to form the nucleus of the all-important midfield.
Other midfielders are senior Charlie Evans (5 goals), juniors Jeff Espejo, Cody Levitan and Rex Kelly, and sophomore Liam Jablonski plus sophomore newcomer Alex Lopez.
That leaves the unit up front, guys who usually do the scoring—and Wood River managed 58 goals in 22 games last fall, a nice improvement over 31 goals in 18 games of 2008.
Monjaras has the option of moving Turco up top, utilizing his speed and aggressiveness, and he has seen solid progress from senior forwards Jake Freeman and Ian Murphy. Senior Alejandro Garcia is a defensive attacker. Another senior on the team is Jordan Levin.
"Donoso is a proven finisher, but he tends to drop back. With Jake and Ian up front we have plenty of speed. These kids can shoot and run," said Monjaras.
Wood River will have a better idea of how the team is settling in by the time two-time defending Great Basin Conference champion Jerome arrives in Hailey for the first home league game Tuesday, Aug. 31.
Jerome (40-3-1 since 2008, 21-2-0 last fall) defeated Wood River 5-2 in the GBC league championship game and then nipped the Wolverines 3-2 in the State 4A consolation final. Wood River made it back to state with a dramatic penalty shootout win at Burley Oct. 14.
Sandpoint (16-2-2) won its second straight State 4A title and seventh overall 2-1 over 2007 winner Bonneville of Idaho Falls, with Hillcrest taking third 5-0 over Century. And this year's state tournament is up north in Post Falls.
The sliders between varsity and junior varsity for Wood River include Chase Hutchinson, Chandler Gifford, Andrew Graves, Zack Miczulski, Stephen Pfeiffer, Alberto Salinas and Christian Zuniga.
On the JV coached by Dan VandenHeuvel, Eric Anderson and Felipe Raygoza are David Aranda, Eron Bates, Dylan Black, Kevin Blas, Cole Caminiti, Keegan Heneghan, Max Mauldin, Drew Morse, Daniel Owens, Austin Smith, Cesar Velasquez, Guillermo Velasquez, Miguel Velasco and Enrique Ceja.