High School Sports

High School Sports

Firebirds soccer puts spotlight on defense vs. Dodge City

The Free State soccer team is in the midst of its deepest-ever playoff run, advancing to the state semi-final this Friday.

November 6, 2009

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FSHS vs. Dodge City

When: 6 tonight

Where: Blue Valley District Soccer Complex, Overland Park

Records: FSHS 15-4; Dodge City 16-3

Driving Directions to the Blue Valley District Soccer Complex.

Among the many philosophies emphasized by the Free State High boys soccer team’s coaching staff is this all-too-simple gem that seems to illustrate best why the Firebirds are still playing at this point in the season.

“Everybody attacks, everybody defends,” FSHS coach Jason Pendleton said. “It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s definitely what we try to do each time we take the field.”

At 6 tonight, at the Blue Valley District Soccer Complex, the Firebirds will play Dodge City (16-3) in the first semifinal contest in FSHS history. When the whistle sounds and the ball begins to roll, it’s safe to assume Pendleton’s troops will be focused more on the second part of that mantra — defense.

“We feel that if we give up one goal or less we’ll have a chance to win the game,” Pendleton said. “It’s difficult to lose if you don’t get scored on.”

In 19 games this season, the Firebirds (15-4) have recorded 11 shutouts, including two in the postseason. What’s more, the Free State ‘D’ has surrendered just one goal four times (3-1 during that stretch) and has only given up more than two goals in a game on one occasion, a 3-2 loss to Olathe East. The Firebirds enter tonight’s semifinal with a paltry 0.68 goals-against average per game.

Although three of the team’s four back-line defenders came into the 2009 season with varsity experience, Pendleton said none had played at the level they’ve shown in the past few weeks.

Outside defenders Sam Passig and Kendall Goodden have balanced calculated risks with sound decision-making throughout the season. Each player’s performance has been heightened as the playoffs have gone on.

In the middle of the defense, junior Tony Libeer has benefited tremendously from the presence of senior Alan Hornbaker, who protects the middle like an eagle guarding its nest.

While the upside of an improved defense is easy to spot, it also shows up when the Firebirds are on offense. Goal scorers Daniel Chance and Diego Gonzalez continue to lead the team up top, but Pendleton said neither would be quite as skilled if not for the Free State defense.

“Our defense does support our offense by providing quick transitions and playing smart,” Pendleton said. “But the biggest area that they’ve helped the offense is that we’re more difficult to score on in practice. So our goal scorers get a realistic look at what they’ll face in games.”

Tonight, the Firebirds will face an offensive juggernaut in Dodge City, which features a handful of supremely talented forwards.

“They have excellent technical skills and are very athletic and dangerous up top,” Pendleton said. “Their forwards have combined for 37 goals this season. It will take our best effort of the year to have a chance to be successful.”

Dodge City’s only losses of the season came to Liberal, Hutchinson and Wichita East. Liberal defeated Hutchinson on its way to the Class 5A semifinals. Wichita East was knocked out of the Class 6A bracket in the quarterfinals by top seed Washburn Rural.

“At this point, we’re playing for the biggest stakes we’ve ever played for,” Pendleton said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge of getting the chance to prove that we can play with the big boys.”

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