Through the season’s first three games, there was one apparent plus for the winless Lawrence High boys’ soccer team: the Cardinal defenders were playing much better than the team’s record would indicate.
“The defense is really our strength right now,” coach Keith Fithen said. “I have three strong defenders that are just really good. When you’re playing defense and getting a lot of pressure put on, they do a real good job. Not everybody’s perfect, it’s putting a lot of pressure on them, but they’ve been playing really well.”
It is not even the unit Fithen was counting on prior to the season. The veteran coach was looking to divide time between two quality goalies. But when one veteran defender transferred to vo-tech school and his replacement suffered a season-ending illness, Lawrence was forced to go full-time with Ryan Sullivan while taking junior Alex Hatfield out of goal and putting him at an outside back.
“I wanted to showcase two top goalies to the county,” Fithen said. “Definitely what we started with in August is not what we’re going with now.”
Senior captain Cole Heinz is on the right and junior Ryan Sargent is in the middle, while senior captain Jack O’Reilly is a defender/midfielder. Despite the fact Sargent and Hatfield are first-year starters, there is cohesion in the back.
“I think the chemistry between us is great,” Heinz said. “I have been playing with Jack since intermediate school and have been great friends with him and Ryan for a while. Being great friends on and off the field helps because we understand each other and know how one another plays.”
O’Reilly concurred, adding, “Playing alongside Ryan and Cole last year helps a lot. We have really good communication back there and at times I know what they’re doing without them saying anything because of how well I know their playing habits.”
Although playing with four backs, O’Reilly is kind of a hybrid central back/holding midfielder, not unlike a stopper in the old stopper/sweeper days.
“We’re not really a flat back four,” Fithen said. “We’re giving Jack O’Reilly a dual role, he can also go forward and attack and play a two-way game whereas Ryan, Cole and Alex stay back. Jack is playing like a center back, but only moves up when he can.”
O’Reilly, who suffered a sprained wrist in the season’s third game (but could still play), is quick to note defense is his main concern.
“Moving up to mid has been a challenge; I’m trying to make runs but not be too aggressive to put our team in a chance to get countered on,” he said. “For the most part not much has changed though, it has been smooth and the defense has been very solid.”
“He still provides a good defensive mindset in the middle and makes it easier for all of the defenders,” Heinz added.
When he stays back, O’Reilly is as solid as they come.
“He’s just doing really well,” Fithen said. “When he’s in the middle he clogs up things, he denies passes from the midfield. He’s really doing a good job of winning the ball and going forward. He’s also our long thrower, he can throw the ball pretty far and gives us another tactical advantage.”
O’Reilly has been a defender most of his career but prides himself on being versatile in order to help all over the field. He feels the key to playing strong defense is keeping things uncomplicated.
“You don’t want to do too much because there’s no line behind you so you want to find feet and be simple,” he said. “Also, not letting the attacker turn because when he turns and is coming forward at you and you’re on your heels, that’s when they’re most dangerous. Last, you’ve gotta be confident back there that you aren’t gonna let anything by you.”
Heinz provides the Cardinals with a strong technical player on the right side.
“He can make runs down the side, he can deny space, he’s got very good speed, he can track back and he’s got the endurance,” Fithen said. “He’s very good in the air. He’s just a strong player on the outside. He can play balls down sidelines to midfielders and forwards easily.”
A lifelong defender, Heinz feels there are several aspects to the job.
“The key to being a good defender is communication, positioning, effort and anticipation,” he said. “As a defender, you need to be smart because you are the last line of players before the goalie and net. If you dive in or make a mistake, there could be a goal at fault.”
One strength that the two defenders share is that Fithen feels they are outstanding 1-v-1 defenders who can lock down an opposing threat. Both relish the opportunity.
“I love the challenge,” Heinz said. “Knowing the person I am guarding is good, it makes me more motivated and excited to go after him.”
“It’s a match-up I really enjoy because it gives you a chance to compete head to head and I like going against the best of the best strikers; it raises my game,” O’Reilly said. “I like to win my matchup out on the field and control what I can control.”
While the two quad-captains (along with Manny Morales and Jack Schloesser) anchor the back, it takes the proverbial village to make it work. Particularly in the nets, where Sullivan robbed Trenton of three goals in the season-opener and stopped a penalty kick against Montgomery (that the Cougars ended up converting on the rebound by no fault of the keeper).
“He’s just very technical; his angles are really good,” Fithen said. “Ryan has been in the right spot at the right time. If you’re gonna beat him, you gotta beat him smartly and you gotta place it in the right spot. Ryan will cover most of the goal.”
The two juniors have stepped in to make it a complete unit.
“Ryan Sargent will definitely play college ball in two years, he makes us very strong in the middle,” Fithen said. “Alex is just a steady player who can play goalie, midfield and back line, but with our losses on the back line, he’s taken over the reins on that left side.”
The Cardinals main issues early in the season were offensively; but Fithen feels that his defense will keep him in every game until the scoring starts to come.
“We need a team that can go forward, that’s the key,” the coach said. “But right now when we’re pressured on the back line, we feel we have talent. And with a goalie like Ryan and the way he’s playing, we’ll do very well back there.”