Despite winning just four games a season ago, the Powell High School boys’ soccer team won the game that counted, a 4-2 overtime win over Douglas that propelled them into last year’s state tournament.
Once there, however, the Panthers’ inexperience was exposed, coming up on the losing end of a pair of routs.
What a difference a year makes. The combination of a new coach with a new style — coupled with an infusion of young, talented players to complement the returning veterans — has the Panthers headed into this year’s state tournament as the No. 2 team in 3A. It’s a position one might not have thought possible at the conclusion of last season. With an 11-4-1 overall record, the Panthers are the No. 2 seed from 3A West, and will face 3A East No. 3 Rawlins in today’s (Thursday’s) opening round in Jackson.
“I think everyone is focused and ready to go,” said first-year PHS head coach Dave Gilliatt. “It’s funny, because we have a lot of young players that this is their first time going [to state]. I don’t know that they appreciate the big deal that it is.”
That’s not to say the younger players aren’t taking the opportunity seriously; many of them have played in big tournaments with their club teams and know what it takes to succeed.
“To them, it’s just another tournament; they’re like, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ And I’m OK with that,” Gilliatt said. “They’ve been playing competitive soccer for a long time, they’re used to competing. I think the upperclassmen get it, this is the best they’ve ever done, and they don’t want to squander the opportunity.”
It’s been a memorable first season at the helm for Gilliatt, as he’s watched his team embrace a new style of play. The Panthers opened some eyes early in the season by placing third at the Pinnacle Cup in Worland; since then, the team has only continued to improve.
“I’m pleased with the progress the players have made, I’m pleased with their effort,” Gilliatt said. “I’ve learned a lot as a coach. It’s been a challenge, but one that was worth taking on. I’m excited for what we can do this week.”
The Panthers will have a shot at redemption in the opening round in Jackson, squaring off against a Rawlins team that handed them a 6-0 beating in the first round last year. The two teams have met once this season in the Pinnacle Cup, with Powell winning 2-0.
“I’d argue that we’re a different team, so there’s a good chance they’re a different team, as well,” Gilliatt said.
Rawlins is grieving the loss of one of its players, Cody Scott, who died in an automobile accident last weekend. In a show of solidarity, every team in the opening round will start its games one man down until the first dead ball — and a moment of silence will be observed before each game.
“We’ll be respectful of their loss, and we’ll be thoughtful of that,” Gilliatt said. “And when it’s time to play the game, we’ll play the game. They’re there to win, and so are we. We’ll be good sportsmen, but we’re there to win a game.”
As for the rest of the tournament, Gilliatt said the key to success this week will be to not overlook any opponent; every team is dangerous if they’ve advanced this far.
“... We need to take it one game at a time,” he said. “When we play teams that are up to the challenge and equal to us in terms of ability, we need to be firing on all cylinders. In any game, you’re going to make mistakes — we have to make less mistakes and cover for each other when we make those mistakes.”
Being unpredictable is also key, as players tend to be repetitive in what they do. It’s the ones who are able to keep their opponents guessing who cause the most headaches.
“We need to be less predictable, and we have guys that can do that,” Gilliatt said. “I think Rob Sessions has the ability to make a positive impact, and has done so in the later stages of the season. I think a lot of it is he’s been less predictable; he’s relied on his teammates to score the goals, which has freed him up. He’s been making more assists, which frees him up to take more shots.”
Players like Kaleb Brown and Jesse Trotter also have the ability to make an impact, according to Gilliatt. Forward Sam Bauer has been medically cleared to play following a concussion, providing another piece of the puzzle.
“Both of those guys [Brown and Trotter] have the ability to change the game,” he said. “And my central midfield, if they can control the pace of the game and make quality passes, we’ll have the ability to control the game. It will come down to shot quality — we’re going to be playing against better keepers, so we need to have better shot selection.”
If the Panthers play to their abilities, Gilliatt said the team should be able to go deep in the tournament. And though he doesn’t want to speculate on match-ups until Powell takes care of the game in front of them, he wouldn’t mind another shot at Worland.
“I think we ended the season about where I think we should have. But it’s not done,” Gilliatt said. “We’ve got one more week to go.”