By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
QUICKSBURG -- The boys soccer program at Stonewall Jackson, at least recently, has observed a predictable pattern of unexceptional play by young players, followed eventually by growth and postseason success.
The freshman class that composed the bulk of the Generals in 2003 went 4-9-1 that year, then advanced to the Group A state final as seniors in 2006.
The freshman class that composed the bulk of the Generals in 2007 went 4-10-1 that year, then advanced to the Group A state semifinals as juniors in 2009, and went 18-1 as seniors in 2010.
Assuming that pattern would continue, Stonewall Jackson coach Nate Hissong, The Northern Virginia Daily's Boys Soccer Coach of the Year, figured his 2011 team, with so many first-year varsity players, would finish somewhere around 8-8 in Shenandoah District play.
Teams like Riverheads and Central, which returned a majority of their significant players from last season, would give Stonewall Jackson trouble.
And yet, three games into the district schedule, Stonewall Jackson boasted wins against Luray, Central and Riverheads.
"Starting 3-0 in the district definitely gave us the confidence that we needed to realize we could do well this season," Hissong said.
Stonewall Jackson beat Central three times, went undefeated in district play for the third consecutive season, and won the Shenandoah District tournament championship for the third straight year.
Stonewall Jackson finished 14-2 overall, its only regular season losses coming to non-district rival Clarke County.
"The big difference is we had a little more leadership from our seniors," Hissong said.
Generals senior Brandon Jones was especially important to Stonewall Jackson's season: When junior Juan Luna was sidelined with a broken collarbone for the second half of the district schedule, Jones scored two goals in a pivotal win over Central.
"Those kinds of plays from the older guys, I think, carried the younger guys," Hissong said.
Although Stonewall Jackson graduated a bevy of players from last year's team, Hissong said never intended to change the way he conducted practices. He did, however, assume training sessions would revolve more around the technical aspects of the game -- first touches, trapping, shooting, passing -- than the tactical aspects.
But the Generals surprised him.
"They were just so eager, they loved practice, they loved training," Hissong said. "We put in a few sessions in the beginning of the year, which were more tactical sessions that gave them the framework, and they just learned it really quick.
"The fact that they love soccer, and that they're actually very smart players, made it pretty easy."
Freshman forward Roberto Cardoso, with 19 goals, set a Stonewall Jackson record for most goals by a freshman.
Jones finished his senior season with 14 goals, perennial role player David Dodson scored 13 goals, and first-year varsity keeper Eustergio Cruz posted five shutouts.
But what made this season especially enjoyable for Hissong, what made it worth remembering, was the lack of pressure, and the lack of high expectations, both within the team and outside it.
For one season, scoring goals no longer came as a heavy burden; and giving them up no longer came as a dismantling frustration.
Instead, Stonewall Jackson received each goal, each win, each championship, like a gift.
"This year we didn't really have those issues," Hissong said, "whatever win we got was great, so it was definitely a fun year."