Washington soccer to lean on Avilla, junior class

Published 4:23 pm Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Washington soccer coach Jim Kozuch doesn’t like to call any year a “rebuilding season.” Rightfully so, too. The Pam Pack endured losing its best scoring threats — Kyle Hodges and Freddy Jimenez, as well as lockdown defender Holt McKeithan — from the 2015 squad that played for a state championship, but still managed to make it to the fourth round in 2016.

This year, though, Kozuch faces the challenge of replacing over half of his starting 11. Washington will be without three starting defenders in Ben McKeithan, Hermes Elizalde and Zack Pagnani. The Pam Pack also lost two of its best scorers in Rob Zerniak and Eric Ruiz.

“Ben was conference player of the year,” Kozuch said. “We lost Hermes, who was our outside defender. We lost Zack Pagnani. Those guys all started for a while in the back.”

It was a problem that could have been seen coming a year ago. Washington had 10 seniors on last year’s roster. With no juniors on that 2016 squad, this year’s group should be much younger.

That’s not to say it won’t be an experienced bunch, though. Up front, rising junior Oscar Espinoza will shoulder a lot of the scoring. He showed plenty of promise during his sophomore season. Espinoza had easily the highlight play of the season when he drilled a bicycle kick for his third goal in a home win over North Pitt.

“He will be absolutely, incredibly important,” Kozuch said. “He’s a great guy, a good kid and a hard worker. When we had our end of the season soccer awards this year, I named him a captain then. He’s been able to take charge this summer. A lot of the guys look up to him.”

Oscar Espinoza is lifted up by his teammates after scoring a hat trick against North Pitt. Espinoza, a rising junior, is one of the team’s captains this coming season.

Espinoza has been putting in the work this summer. In addition to all of the team’s workouts, he and his father have been playing in a men’s league in Rocky Mount.

“Him and a couple of other guys we have are playing in that league,” Kozuch said. “They’re not playing with high school kids. They’re playing with adults mostly. So, they’re taking on bigger, stronger athletes. Hopefully they’re getting a lot out of it.”

In the back, the Pam Pack may have 75 percent of its starting defense gone, but they do have the reassurance of goalkeeper Kevin Avilla returning for his senior season. Kozuch has already named him a captain, too.

“Having Kevin back is absolutely amazing. I think he single handedly saved us in many games last year,” Kozuch said. “I think he’s the best goalkeeper in the state. I truly mean that, hands down. It’s extremely comforting.”

Cody Pinkham will be taking on a role on defense much like the one Espinoza will assume on offense. The rising junior worked his way into the starting lineup after the Pam Pack backline was hampered by a handful of injuries.

“He works very hard and has a very bright future with us,” Kozuch said. “He’s returning with three-quarters of a season of experience. He’s got great size. He works hard and loves the game. … The No. 1 goal of the summer is find and create defenders.”

Kozuch is also looking at a few incoming freshmen from P.S. Jones to fill gaps on defense. He also indicated Henry Jennings, who spent much of his sophomore year on the junior-varsity team, could be important on the varsity squad come August.

“Some of the guys are licking their chops. Hopefully they come in this summer, get better, and give us a couple of options,” Kozuch said.

The Pam Pack will be a lot younger when it kicks off its season Aug. 21 at home against now-former conference foe North Pitt. With a talented junior class, some hungry younger players, and Avilla keeping balls out of the net, this team should still feel like the strong Washington teams fans have grown accustomed to.