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By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
I was incredulous at first, and I probably pulled a stupid face.
It was the beginning of the spring season. I was asking Handley boys soccer coach Cosmo Balio about the Judges' chances of winning the Northwestern District.
I told him Millbrook could be the team to look out for. He told me James Wood was definitely the team to look out for.
And so I pulled a stupid face.
James Wood? Really? James Wood.
Imagine the face I pulled when I heard James Wood coach Chris Hild say something to the same effect later that week.
The Colonels really were looking to win the district for the first time ever. They really were looking for the first Region II berth in program history.
Not only that -- they seemed to expect it.
James Wood had talent, I knew. Spencer Marfing was a potential Player of the Year candidate. And forward Matt Henriques has shown time and time again that he's capable of scoring on long and lonesome runs.
Indeed -- Hild's team beat a talented Millbrook side last year, and pushed Handley, which eventually went undefeated in the district, to the brink.
But James Wood wasn't dynamic. The Colonels packed the box. They seemed to willingly hand the ball to other teams and dare them to score from inside the 18-yard mark. And those long and lonesome Henriques scores? Those became the Colonels' singular method of scoring: Kick the ball to midfield; hope Henriques can get to it before anyone else; hope he can draw the keeper out and pound in a goal.
I watched Henriques score that way in a 2-0 win over Millbrook last year. It was James Wood's first win in eight games. Henriques' goal was only the Colonels' sixth of the season.
They weren't dynamic. They didn't play pretty soccer. And only teams that play pretty soccer advance to regionals.
Handley plays pretty soccer.
Stonewall Jackson plays pretty soccer.
Yet here we are. James Wood won the Northwestern District regular season title following a 1-1 tie with Handley on May 16. Then it won the Northwestern District tournament championship with a 2-1 win over Millbrook on Tuesday.
Maybe it isn't about playing pretty soccer. Maybe Colonels senior Josh Marts was right: Maybe winning really is all about playing defense. Packing the box. Sending long balls to a sprinting Henriques. Scoring only when you have to.
Henriques, by the way, scored twice in the tournament championship. He can be as dynamic as anyone in the district.
Four Colonels have been named first team all-Northwestern District this season: Marfing was a unanimous choice; keeper Elliot Shiben, whose antics in goal have more than once saved James Wood from certain loss; and Marts and Henriques.
Jacob Carpenter and Logan Yost were both second team all-Northwestern District honorees.
Hild was named Coach of the Year.
So James Wood's (7-5-2) Region II tournament quarterfinal game against Kettle Run (13-4), the Evergreen District regular season runner-up, on Tuesday should prove interesting.
Kettle Run split with former Northwestern District power Brentsville in the regular season, then lost to the Tigers by a goal in the regular season playoff championship game. Kettle Run also split with Handley. The Cougars have scored four goals or more in nearly half their games. They've given up more than two goals only three times.
Needless to say, Kettle Run plays pretty soccer.
But don't pull a stupid face if Henriques scores on an early run, as he's so wont to do. Don't pull a stupid face if the Colonels find themselves nursing a one-goal lead in the 70th minute.
And don't pull a stupid face when, for the umpteenth time this season, Hild promises that James Wood soccer is not a fluke.