Loaded Pam Pack goes all in, returns seven starters

Published 3:22 pm Friday, August 14, 2015

DAVID CUCCHIARA | DAILY NEWS FORCE UP FRONT: Striker Kyle Hodges, a rising senior, takes on a Croatan defender during last season’s third round playoff game. Hodges finished the season with 40 goals, a Pam Pack single-season record.

FORCE UP FRONT: Striker Kyle Hodges, a rising senior, takes on a Croatan defender during last season’s third round playoff game. Hodges finished the season with 40 goals, a Pam Pack single-season record.

It was a program-defining, once-in-a-decade kind of game for the Pam Pack soccer team on Nov. 5. A defensive stop, a miraculous save and a strategic substitution all contributed to the team’s survival through four overtime periods against Croatan, the top defensive team in 2-A.

The players lined up at midfield, linking their arms, and one by one individuals from both teams traded penalty shots with a place in the fourth round of the state tournament on the line. After nearly 15 minutes of penalty kicks, Holt McKeithan stepped to the line with a chance to win it.

McKeithan would slip the shot past the goal keeping, prompting fans to rush the field.

The ultimate goal that season, even with just four seniors on the roster, was a state championship. In the next round, however, Washington fell short by two goals to First Flight, the eventual state runner up. But despite the loss, the postseason run proved that with a little work, the Pam Pack could surely compete for a state title.

“As always, our goal is to win every single game, but this year, I think it’ll be as realistic as it’s ever been,” said head coach Jim Kozuch. “This is the most dedicated team I’ve seen and I think when they got a taste of getting to the third round, they see a state championship is not fantasy. It can happen.”

With seven returning starters suiting up this season and nine seniors on the roster, Washington is going all in. And the state is taking notice. EuroSportscoreboard.com, a website that periodically ranks the top high school soccer teams in the Carolinas, gave Washington a preseason state ranking of seven, regarding them as the fifth-best team in the East.

For the Pam Pack, expectations are some of the highest they’ve ever been and the seniors are embracing it.

“I think (the seniors) see, when we play a team like First Flight, they’re a team that puts in the time,” Kozuch said. “This year, we’ve put in as much time as possible. These guys are playing soccer four, five, six, even seven days a week all summer long. That’s the only way you can take your game to the next level.”

A part of reaching that next level is improving a midfield that struggled with distribution and turning defensive stops into goals. To address the lack of offensive production that plagued the team late in the season, Kozuch is stacking the midfield, beginning with Gabriel Valle-Torres, one of the team’s defensive rocks last season. Valle-Torres will join returning midfielders Miguel Hernandez and Eric Ruiz, a sophomore with a great shot and elite footwork.

“Just from the few practices that we’ve had, (Ruiz) looks really, really good at the center midfield position,” Kozuch said. “He’s helping out the defense, giving them an outlet. Last year our midfield did a better job of playing defense and not really distributing the ball well, but I think Eric is going to be a tremendous asset at center mid.”

In terms of which players the midfield will distribute to, the forward positions feature some of the top talent on Washington’s roster — striker Kyle Hodges and first-year senior Freddy Jimenez. Hodges, a senior, broke the school’s single-season scoring record for men’s soccer last season with 40 goals, but Kozuch believes that final stat line will garner the attention of opposing defense and Jimenez may end up being the X-factor.

“We have Kyle Hodges up there and he’s going to be a marked man. People know who he is now,” he said. “Freddy is incredibly skilled. Kyle will have a much more well-rounded year. I think the two of them have been really complimenting each other at practice.”

If there are any questions entering the season for Washington, it’s on defense, where center defenseman Holt McKeithan will work with a variety of different players as the season progresses. Senior Dylan Singleton, who started 20 games last season, is expected to be on the field Monday, but that still leaves two gaps.

During the Croatan game last season, Ben McKeithan was substituted late and made an immediate impact. He will get significant time on the back line alongside his brother, while Arturo Leal and Zack Pagnani, who had success at the jayvee level last year, will also be rotated in.

“I’m going to give all these kids minutes until we find the right combination,” Kozuch said. “I want to win every game this year, but when we have opportunities, I’m going to shuffle the defense around a lot in hopes of finding the perfect combination.”

Along with the collection of returning key field players is goalkeeper William Tate, who notched 126 saves last season. While regressing from his sophomore to junior year, allowing twice as many goals in 2014 as he did in 2013, Tate is primed for a solid senior season, despite the questions on defense.

Washington will lean on its experience to lead some of the new faces through the nonconference slate, which features games against J.H. Rose, Greene Central and First Flight. Having yet to drop an Eastern Plains Conference game in two seasons, another conference championship and a high playoff seed is certainly in the cards for the Pam Pack this season.