Pam Pack ready for playoffs

Published 5:47 pm Thursday, November 3, 2016

Washington didn’t wallow in Wednesday’s tiebreaker loss to North Johnston for long. The Pam Pack almost immediately used the disappointment as motivation, shifting its focus to Saturday’s first-round playoff game against Durham School of the Arts.

The Pam Pack and Bulldogs aren’t very familiar with one another. Durham comes from a 2-A North Carolina Conference chock full of talent. Bunn, a team Washington is familiar with from last year’s playoffs, won the league this season. Also in the conference is a South Granville team that the Pam Pack cruised past in last year’s first round.

Even with Wednesday’s loss, coach Jim Kozuch is pleased with where the team is heading into the playoffs. There were a lot of preseason questions with this team.

“I think that the season has gone really well for us,” he said. “I believe we lost 12 guys from last year’s team. I just couldn’t have asked for a better year. With one loss, two or three losses, I would have been happy. To make it through and get big wins against some pretty good teams this year, I’m really happy. These guys worked hard.”

The hard work is only beginning, though. Some of this year’s key pieces were big parts of last year’s run. Forward Rob Zerniak has stepped up to provide the scoring after the Pam Pack graduated Kyle Hodges and Freddy Jimenez.

“Last year, we had a ton of goals, but … I don’t think we were too far from last year’s goal scoring,” Kozuch said. “We were a very solid team, and had two solid targets with Freddy and Kyle. This year, I think we’re a lot more versatile, and I think we have four kids with 20 or more goals.”

Zerniak isn’t the only one with a finishing touch. Washington notched 151 goals in the regular season last year. The 128 it put in the back of the net this time around isn’t far off from that impressive mark.

The Pam Pack doesn’t have one player opposing defenses can key in on as it begins its foray into the postseason. It’s something that made the team’s attack deadly last year.

“We have five or six guys, I think, with 15 or more goals this year,” Zerniak said, who hopes the players around him will make it impossible for opponents to isolate him. “That’s hard to stop for a defense. I think we’ll be fine.”

If younger players like Oscar Espinoza, Victor Hernandez and Tim Anglim can stay in form, Washington has the depth up top to make another run.

“Playoffs is a weird time,” Kozuch said. “Some guys, it’s not that their game has fallen off. But, at this point in the year, you’re playing better competition. If you’re a forward, you’re coming out and they know exactly who you are. If you only have one key player, he’s going to be man marked. … This year, having four players with 20 goals, good luck.”

The defense appeared more concrete heading into this season. Seniors Ben McKeithan, Zack Pagnani and Hermes Elizalde held back opponents’ attackers. Goalkeeper Kevin Avilla has been a superstar as the last line of defense, too.

“In practice, we get great practice against great offensive players,” McKeithan said. “That helps us in a game. It strengthens our defense even more.”

If ever there was a good time to lose a game, Wednesday was it. Those among the Pam Pack ranks that played in last year’s state championship are dead set on making it back, but the shortcoming against North Johnston was a good wakeup call.

“It motivates us a little more,” Zerniak said. “Some of the guys, we were just talking about how we hate losing. They don’t want to experience that any more.”

Kozuch added, “The loss was humbling, and it’s probably the perfect time to get one. The last time we lost a game was to North Johnston, and we won six games after that. If we win six games this time, we’re winning a state championship.”

Saturday’s game is set for 6:30 p.m. in “Choppy” Wagner Stadium.