Hopewell Soccer Aims To Leave Mark
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Mar 13, 2014, 20:46
Ryan Lazo/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
HOPEWELL — The Blue Devils soccer team have their eyes set on accomplishing some lofty goals this season with the most important one being Conference 26 champions. But why all the optimism?
Well, this is a Blue Devils team which returns nine starters from last year's squad and is in their second full season under head coach Brad Dalton. While last season was much a campaign of evaluation, this season is all about results for a team that has impressed in two scrimmage games already.
Earlier this week, Hopewell captured a 3-2 victory over Varina while showcasing the type of offensive talent they possess. Yet, they knew they still had things to work on entering their final scrimmage match Thursday night against Appomattox Regional Governor's School.
And it didn't take long for Hopewell to do exactly what they set out to do.
Starting off play in a 4-4-2 formation, Dalton implored his team to possess the ball and patiently break down a Dragons' defense which was more impressive than one thought to be the case. Appomattox did a great job of staying organized on the back line, making it difficult for the Blue Devils to create good scoring chances.
However, as Hopewell controlled more and more of the possession, creases began to open. And in the second 20-minute frame of play, it was left back Scott Layne making an offensive push up the flank to whip in a left-footed cross into the box which found Addiel Gomez for a blast into net.
The 35' minute strike was just the start of an offensive exhibition for Hopewell in a clinical 4-2 victory at chilly and windy Merner Field.
"Our biggest thing is we're looking at all the mistakes we had last year and I have nine starters back, so we know what we did wrong," Dalton said after the game. "The goal this year is to create those mistakes ... we can compete with anyone if we play like we did tonight."
Dalton isn't just throwing out compliments either. His team thoroughly outclassed the Dragons in almost every facet of the game while also showing very little weakness on either side of the ball.
In fact, Hopewell's success started with the play of their midfield which not only tracked back well defensively, but showed an ability to keep possession with smart passes. In fact, it was two senior midfielders who really stood out against the Dragons when other players may have tried to force passes that weren't there.
Both Zach Hipps and Juan Martinez showed keen awareness of the pitch wherever they were. Playing mostly as the central midfielder, Hipps knew when to push forward or fall back while also sprinkling great through balls and set-piece attempts to teammates in dangerous positions.
Meanwhile, Martinez was all over the final third for Hopewell, firing shots at net and creating chances for teammates seemingly at will, highlighting the effectiveness the midfield can have this season.
"We've spent 20 or 30 everyday at practice playing possession," Dalton explained. "If you have the ball, you can create chances for the team. Last year, we spent so much time getting behind the ball that we could never muster anything offensively and the work these kids have put in over the last three months is really starting to pay off."
And it was easy to see the difference on the pitch Thursday night.
While the Dragons seemingly tired after 40 minutes of action, Hopewell had another gear while also displaying an ability to adjust to the defensive philosophy of Appomattox and to their own follies from earlier in the game. The Blue Devils played much of the contest in the the Dragons' final third, but had nothing to show for it with execution being slightly off.
Whether it was Hipps being a shade offside before ripping one into net or Martinez shooting wide, Hopewell struggled to convert. However, senior captain Tyler Jordan made the biggest adjustment of all his teammates.
Struggling with his first touch through the first 40 plus minutes, Jordan recognized what he was doing wrong when in front of net and fixed it immediately. The captain would score two goals in a little over a minute — one on a left-footed shot to the lower corner and the other a chip over the goalkeeper for good measure.
It was just another example of Jordan's impact on the team and what he wants to accomplish this season.
"He's our returning leading scorer from last year, he's a senior and he wants to go out by making history here in Hopewell," Dalton said. "They've taken it upon themselves that they are not going to back down from anyone."
Ryan Lazo/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
And it's because of that mentality that Hopewell faces a challenging schedule filled with the likes of Thomas Dale, Prince George, Meadowbrook and Matoaca all season long. A competitive schedule will only make Hopewell more battle-tested by the time they reach the conference playoffs.
In fact, if the team continues to improve as dramatically as they have from the first to second scrimmage games — firing 22 shots on goal compared to just four for Appomattox — then their opponents should be weary.
"Their goal is simple," Dalton said of his team. "They have said they want to be the first Conference 26 soccer champion. And for Hopewell, we have not had a district champion in 32 years in soccer, so they want to be the first."
While no one knows how the season will unfold, Hopewell's potent offensive-attack and organized defense figures to keep them in contention all season long.