By Earl Vaughan Jr.
It’s been more than a calendar year since Cumberland County Schools soccer teams have been on the field, since being shut down for their normal fall season by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With severely limited off-season workouts and preseason practice that began just a couple of weeks ago, coaches are most concerned about the conditioning of their athletes, along with the added strain COVID-19 protocols like wearing a mask during matches will have on their players.
The last time they were in competition, the boys from Gray’s Creek and Terry Sanford both enjoyed solid seasons in the Patriot Athletic Conference. The Bears of coach Bryan Pagan won the regular-season title with a 19-6 overall record.
They were one game better in the conference race than second-place Terry Sanford. Steven Barbour’s team posted a 14-8-1 record.
Pagan said some of his players have taken advantage of being stuck at home through much of the pandemic by lifting weights in home gyms and building muscle mass.
But he saw some troubling signs in a preseason scrimmage match with Richmond Senior.
“I could tell on both sides there were a lot of dead legs out there,’’ he said, referring to a lack of focus on building the cardiovascular system.
Dealing with that and the COVID protocols in the early going will be a challenge for all coaches. Pagan said NCHSAA COVID requirements ask for seven soccer balls to be available to rotate in and out of play. The balls have to be disinfected during the contest.
Mask restrictions will be strictly observed, even to the point of temporarily removing players from a contest if a mask doesn’t fit properly.
Another concern for all schools is that fewer players are coming out for the teams for various reasons that range from fears about COVID to failure to meet various eligibility requirements.
Terry Sanford’s Barbour is trying to remain positive despite all the challenges.
“Eligibility did impact us, but it did not devastate us,’’ Barbour said.
Barbour did say the lack of numbers county-wide has had a bigger effect on junior varsity teams and the ability of some schools to be able to field them this season.
Barbour returns a core group of six seniors, led by multi-talented Davis Molnar, the 2019 Patriot Athletic Conference defensive player of the year.
“He’s an accomplished young man in more than one sport,’’ Barbour said.
Also back is last year’s captain, Graham McLeod. Other seniors include Arjuna Gephart, Ramon Yarborough, William Hedgepeth and Bailey Morrison.
“We’ve got a deep bench and a lot of talent,’’ Barbour said.
Pagan’s top returner is senior center midfielder Eric Chavez. An all-conference pick in 2019, Chavez was Cumberland County’s second-leading scorer that year with 17 goals and 14 assists.
Other promising returnees include James Faatz, Nicholas Hallis and Connor Boyle.
Pagan said another veteran, Robert Ison, is expected to step in at goalkeeper after serving as a backup last season.
Pagan feels the limitations being placed on everyone by COVID-19 will create more parity than usual in the local soccer competition this year.
“I don’t think any team is going to beat everybody,’’ he said. “It will be exciting and competitive. The biggest thing is we have a season for the kids, if we can do it safely.’’