Figueroa’s focus on improvement fuels rise with Wildcats

Warren County's Jorge Figueroa takes a shot at a goal during a practice drill Monday on the school's practice field. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Jorge Figueroa’s emergence as the go-to scorer for Warren County High School’s boys soccer team last season was the product of several factors.

One of the primary contributors, Figueroa said last week, was the Wildcats’ ability to improve their team communication between his freshman and sophomore seasons. He and his teammates learned each other’s play styles, he said, and they did well to erase much of the “negativity” that surrounded the program in 2015.

At the core of Figueroa’s improvement, however, was a desire to want to get better. He implored himself to work harder.

“What triggered that is I wanna get somewhere farther than just (the conference tournament),” said Figueroa, a junior, before hitting the practice field last Thursday with his teammates as the Wildcats prep for the 2017 season. ” … I just wanna get further, like not just get knocked out the first game. My goal is to like get more wins and just go past that level because it sucks just getting beat the first game.”

Figueroa experienced an early playoff exit in each of his first two seasons with Warren County’s varsity squad but his determination to improve showed in his individual performance in 2016.

He led the Wildcats with 14 goals scored as a sophomore, a number that also ranked second in the area among high school boys players, and he was a first team All-Conference 28 and All-Bull Run District selection. He needed just five matches to eclipse his output as a freshman, as he scored seven goals – powered by two hat tricks – in that span last spring.

Figueroa was focused both in practice and during games, he said, and though he admitted he surprised himself with his performance last season, his skill set leaves little to wonder how he’s become so successful on the soccer field.

Figueroa, who grew up in a family of recreational soccer players, has the speed to run past defenders and the size and physicality to power through contact (he played football for the first time with the Wildcats last fall).

It’s Figueroa’s ability to cycle through those attributes on the fly during matches that Warren County head coach Shane Lilly said is the junior’s greatest attribute.

“I think it’s his ability to adapt to the teams that he’s playing, the type of defenders he’s dealing with and midfielders he’s dealing with,” Lilly said. “He’s able to adapt to them and their skill set. I think he’s able to find himself in different positions in the game because he puts himself there knowing who he can beat or how he can set up a teammate. I think he’s able to recognize in-game without having to go back and watch film. He already knows what’s needed to be solved by the second half.”

Building the Wildcats’ offensive attack around Figueroa for two more seasons is a luxury Lilly can certainly look forward to, but making the junior the sole focus of the offense is a dangerous strategy.

Figueroa, going all in on the leadership role he knows he must fill this season, realizes as much and has been spreading that message to his teammates.

“I tell everybody that they just can’t depend on me and just kick the ball and expect me to be there and get it and score,” he said. “I told them that they all have the skills that I have, they just have to dig deep and find them. They’re all strong and smart and they know what to do. They know where to put the ball.”

Finding more effective ways to complement Figueroa was a focal point for Lilly and his coaching staff during the offseason, a move spurred in large part by a 3-1 loss to Strasburg last May.

In that match the Rams shadowed Figueroa, essentially making the Wildcats’ leading scorer a non-factor. It was a strategy that Lilly said he was ignorant of until it was too late.

“I told them last year I blame that loss on me because I didn’t see it in the first half, I only recognized it towards the end of the game and I didn’t have a fix for it,” Lilly said. “So I spent the offseason figuring out, first off, how we’re going to go into games where that occurs, so we don’t have a reoccurrence of that.”

The solution, Lilly continued, will be establishing senior Jakob Cornwell, who scored five goals and had six assists last season, as a more significant part of the Wildcats’ offense this spring, as well as using the accurate leg of junior Stuart Ashley (three goals, six assists in 2016) – the starting kicker for the varsity football team – to fire shots from longer distances.

The idea is to generate a higher volume of shots on goal, and from a variety of positions on the field.

“That’s what we’re gonna encourage this year. It doesn’t have to be feed Jorge, feed Jorge,” Lilly said. “I think my players need to realize that they have the skills to also put the shots on net themselves and to just keep doing it. And if they do it then we become a more balanced team, which then should free up Jorge.”

The Wildcats, who return nine players – all with at least some starting experience – and a captain (senior Michael Moore) from last season’s 7-8-1 team, won’t stop there. Lilly, who enters his second season as head coach, said Warren County will change its formation, work on improving its defense and put more emphasis on the basic skills.

“We’re not kicking the ball here. We’ve gotta grow up as a soccer team, as a soccer program and start playing with the big boys like William Monroe and George Mason. And that’s our goal,” Lilly said. “That’s our goal is to not only compete but to put ourselves in a position where we can win those games. I think the second time we played each of those teams (last season), I know the scores say differently – at least for one of them – but I think we competed longer and through the entire games and really gave both teams a scare at some point throughout the games. And I plan to do that again at another level this year.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com