By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- It's been a long, weary, plodding season for Millbrook's boys soccer team.
The Pioneers notched only one win in non-district play -- granted, the bulk of their early schedule came against powerful teams from the Dulles and Cedar Run Districts -- and sloshed through a scoreless two-game delirium in the early goings of district play.
Yet with an 8-0 win over Skyline in the Northwestern District play-in game at James Wood on Thursday, Millbrook's once-plodding season is now off and running.
And the Pioneers couldn't be happier to see their season stretch on for at least few more days.
"These guys don't want the season to end," Millbrook coach Keith Kilmer said. "They're very, very fired up about moving on -- they want to move on."
Thursday's thrashing of Skyline, for Millbrook, was something of a baptism, an 80-minute cleansing of the twisted memoirs written during a regular season that wrought three wins, nine losses and three ties.
In fact, counting the play-in game Thursday, Millbrook has scored 15 goals in its last two games, and keeper Brandon Seal has posted shutouts in both tries.
Handley is the only other team in the Northwestern District to have scored eight goals on Skyline, and Millbrook is the only team to have done it twice.
Senior midfielder Michael Venegas scored his first hat trick of the season against the Hawks, and senior forward Ryan Runion, with a hat trick of his own, solidified himself as the district's leading goal-scorer.
"At the beginning of the season we probably had just 11 players out there," Venegas said. "Now we have a group, a team, playing out there as one, and it's helped a lot."
That growth, from individual players to solidified unit, has taken place most noticeably during practices. When the Pioneers go out for long runs, Venegas said he, Runion and Alex Barrette, Millbrook's three captains, make sure the stragglers keep pace with the lead runners.
Millbrook runs like a team in the afternoon, and plays like one in the evening.
But also throw into the mix of inspiring factors the dire sense of urgency which swells toward the end of a dreary season.
"We had the talent but we just didn't put it together," Runion said. "We didn't want it as bad as we should, and then getting closer and closer to districts, we started noticing that we're falling behind everybody.
"We had to step it up and put away some big games like this one."
It also took some time for Kilmer to finally piece together the complex puzzle of a soccer team deep in talent, but not in cohesiveness.
After tinkering with formations and player assignments for the better part of the season, Kilmer thinks he finally has a combination that works, and the past few games are evidence of that.
Perhaps the most enchanting fit has been Julian Pantoja's move to the stopper position. The junior has scored three goals from the position, and has made a habit of raking in balls from opposing strikers and midfielders.
And the Runion-Venegas combination is hardly one to scoff at. What makes the pair so lethal is that their partnership doesn't necessarily begin with the midfielder, or end with the forward.
In the 49th minute, Runion zigzagged down the left flank, and sent a high cross toward the goal's mouth. Venegas leaped and kissed in a header for his third goal.
In the 34th minute, Venegas stormed down the right side, playing the ball in every possible direction, with every inch of his cleats and shins, and pulled Skyline keeper Brian Ciarrocchi from goal. Venegas slipped the ball into the far post.
"Had [Venegas] played like he's played the last four, five games of the season," Kilmer said, "I have no question that people would consider him up there with the absolute best in this district.
"He would have to be in the discussion."
As far as Skyline's season is concerned, head coach Matt Dusing said his team finished the season on something of a high note, considering he now has a steady foundation to build on for next season. With more athletes than soccer players on the Hawks' squad, Dusing has spent more time working on fundamentals and technique than on strategy.
"I'll be honest, I'm a little disappointed, I don't think we realized our potential," Dusing said. "But at the same time I think this is where we fit into the district right now -- I think this is accurate."
Millbrook will play top-seeded Handley in the district tournament semifinals on Saturday at James Wood.