Originally Published: August 26, 2016 5:55 a.m.
CHINO VALLEY — When you’ve won three consecutive state championships in the small-schools division of fall varsity boys’ soccer, what do you do for an encore?
Well, when you play for Chino Valley High’s stalwart program, you “keep the train rolling,” as former longtime coach Jim Clark famously said in 2015.
With state titles in 2013, 2014 and 2015 under their belts, the Cougars remain a legitimate contender to capture their fourth straight crown this fall in the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s (AIA) new 2A Conference.
“We’re trying not to think about it,” said Chino senior midfielder/co-captain Walter Soto about gunning for four in a row. “We’re just trying to do what we came to – win – and hopefully win the state title again.”
Chino, which registered a 21-1 overall record last year, kicks off the 2016 season at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 30, versus Snowflake at home.
“Coming in, I don’t really think about the ‘four-peat’ a whole lot, just because it’s my first season as head coach,” Cougars coach Todd Carey said. “The main thing is I just want to keep the tradition going.”
The transition for Carey, who takes over for retired 30-year icon Clark, has been seamless. Carey, 33, played for Clark as a midfielder from 1997-2000, winning a state title with Chino in 2000. He served as an assistant coach for Clark in 2007, 2008 (state championship team) and 2009 before stepping away for several years and returning in 2015. Carey plans to retain Clark’s system of play and add only a few wrinkles.
“Nothing has changed – we still do the same routine, everything,” Soto said.
Leading the Cougars’ charge in 2016 is senior forward Arturo Gomez, the 2015 AIA Division V Player of the Year who scored 41 goals and added 12 assists last fall.
“We’re trying to go for it [a fourth straight title], but we’re trying to work as a team in getting through it,” Gomez said. “Last year we played more as a team, but it wasn’t as much as we wanted it to be. So this year we’re concentrating and putting our passion into just playing the game and hopefully win another title.”
Carey said sophomore Jordan Sanchez, who scored 25 goals and earned first team All-State accolades last season, will move from forward to midfielder in 2016.
“Jordan is one of those players that just can take control of the game from the midfield,” the coach added. “He can distribute. He can win balls. Jordan can pretty much play anywhere on the field.”
Carey said the change should free junior forward Elijah Desmond to score more.
“Elijah’s a finisher – he doesn’t wow you with speed, he doesn’t wow you with touches,” the coach added. “But when he has the ball at his feet and he’s anywhere around the 18 (yard line), he can finish.”
At one of the two wings, the Cougars will start junior Matthew Rios. Carey hasn’t decided on the other starter.
Defensively, senior defender Edgar Sanchez guides a stingy back-row unit alongside junior defender Jairo Herrera, a 2015 first team All-State selection.
Carey said Herrera was the best back in the state last year, in part because of his speed. “If he gets beat, he catches the guy five yards down the field,” the coach added. Junior back Kaleb Chacon is another to watch.
“They’re both aggressive and they’re both quick,” Carey said of Herrera and Chacon. “They’re two of the fastest guys on the team as far as the five- or 10-yard sprint.”
Sanchez, a 2015 second team All-State pick, shares co-captain honors with Soto (nine goals, 15 assists; second team All-State). The well-spoken Sanchez said he’s honored to help lead a team that gets along so well on and off the pitch.
“This year, you’d figure after three state titles your head would be… BIG,” Sanchez said. “And that’s not what it is with this team. If you see them at practice and you see them day in and day out, their hustle’s incredible. And that’s what I love – their heart, they want it, and we all get along so closely every year.”
Sanchez, a stopper, sprained his right ankle playing in a league this summer but expects to start in the season opener. Carey held out Sanchez from the Cougars’ home scrimmage Aug. 24 as a precaution.
“Once he gets healthy, he’ll anchor that back line for us,” Carey said.
Sophomore Johnny Beltran should start at center back/sweeper. Carey likes Beltran as a team leader. “Guys listen to him, and he’s a great defender,” Carey said.
In goal, Chino will start sophomore Abraham Gamez, a hard worker with “great instincts,” Carey said. Gamez has enormous shoes to fill, taking the reins from star keeper Spencer Coffin, who graduated in May and now plays for Yavapai College in Prescott. Senior Jesus Guarda should also receive minutes in the net.
Carey returned only five starters from 2015. He said he lost “a lot” of leadership, citing the senior core that guided the Cougars to their third straight state title. Nevertheless, Carey said he retained nearly all of the “stat guys” – those players who tally the bulk of the goals and assists.
Chino Valley is the 2A favorite in 2016, although the Cougars should have competition from county rival Camp Verde, Flagstaff Northland Prep, Phoenix Country Day, defending state runner-up Lakeside Blue Ridge, Show Low and Snowflake.
As Carey embarks on his first campaign as head coach, he said it’s not easy succeeding Clark, who started Chino’s varsity program in the late 1980s.
During Clark’s tenure, the Cougars captured seven state championships (1990-91, 2000, 2008, 2013-15).