Ottawa Hills boys take center stageWritten by Scott Calhoun | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When the 2006 high school boys soccer season began, the Ottawa Hills Green Bears were considered little more than an afterthought in the predicted Toledo Area Athletic Conference title chase.
It was supposed to be all about Toledo Christian and Maumee Valley Country Day.
By season’s end, the Green Bears owned their fifth TAAC title and their first Division III district crown before ending up a goal shy of their first state semifinal berth.
“Before last year, the team always got beat in districts. We couldn’t seem to get the monkey off our backs to reach regionals,” Ottawa Hills Athletic Director Tim Erickson said.
The Green Bears finished 16-1-4 and did it all under the radar of primary area and statewide attention.
With all but three starters back from last year’s team, the holes aptly filled by freshman midfield-forward phenom Reed Glosser and able sophomore first-year starting goalie Jake Bruner, the 8-0-2 Green Bears are no longer creeping along in 2007.
“The starting lineup is basically the same as last year, aside from Reed, but he’s a solid freshman, real good,” said senior co-captain Jordan Bernardo. “And then [Bruner] and [junior forward Kevin Elliot] split time in the net.”
They’ve been state-ranked in the first three weekly polls released this season and were absent from this week’s due simply to a mistake by the area voting rep.
Even the accidental lack of recognition as one of Ohio’s top D-III teams can’t keep third-year head coach Greg McElroy and the Green Bears from accepting that they’ve earned the exposure and all the pressure that comes with it.
“The thing that’s different this year, and that I think works against us, is the expectations,” McElroy said. “Last year there was no expectation for us to do well.”
Despite the newfound target on its back, the team has everything it takes to win a second straight TAAC crown and make a very deep postseason run: fluent chemistry front to back, offensive weapons galore, interchangeable players who can shift from one position to another and a veteran, shut-down defense.
“We’ve only had two goals scored against us once,” said Bernardo of a backfield that has yielded just five goals and helped construct five shutouts.
It thrives off the return of three primary starters from last year’s team in junior sweeper Jack Jamieson and sophomore defenders Ian Monroe and Josh Bruner, brother of keeper Jake.
The trio hones in on the opposing attack 30 yards beyond the Ottawa Hills goal box and rarely over-commits in trying to steal the ball away. Any chance the opponent gets to shoot on net is a hard-earned one.
The Green Bears have outscored their opponents 35-5 so far.
Bernardo and Elliot are just two of the outstanding weapons in a seemingly endless offensive arsenal. Glosser and junior midfielders Sam Kuehnle and Ben Bryant, among others, also wield deadly striking capability.
Making the attack all the more dangerous is the morphing ability with which each of the midfielders, forwards and defenders can confuse opposing defenses.
“A lot of people on our team can play multiple positions,” Bernardo said.
Defenders cannot consistently mark any one Green Bear without putting themselves in danger of having the guardianship picked and pulled apart.
The Green Bears also benefit greatly from a no-nonsense mentor in McElroy, who never relents from his duties with each passing moment of the season.
“[The players] call me the practice Nazi,” said McElroy, a former star at St. John’s Jesuit in the mid-1980s who previously served five years as the Titans’ JV coach, and is a longtime prominent area club-travel coach.
“I joked with them [after a game last week] and said, ‘How long did it take me to smile last year?’ and they said, ‘Districts.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s because you guys have finally begun to click, so you’ve finally earned a little smirk out of me tonight.’ ”
His approach is utterly effective.
In the team’s 6-0 home win over Country Day Sept. 25, and up 4-0 deep into the second half, McElroy screamed for one of his players to leave a man unmarked on a Hawks direct free kick and instead add on to a three-man wall.
Sherry raced over at McElroy’s behest and got in place just as the Country Day player struck the kick. The ball smacked into Sherry and the player next to him and deflected away, preserving the shutout.
“Former coach Kevin Merrick got the ball rolling before his departure,” said Erickson, “but Greg has taken it to another level.”
Co-head coach Jorge Diaz is the alter-ego to McElroy, taking a more lighthearted approach while instilling the players with his game knowledge.
“He’s more conciliatory with them,” McElroy said. “He tries to uplift them and talk to them in a more positive way, whereas I’m usually harder on them and trying to push them to find that limit.”
McElroy and Elliot believe the keys to the team are the longtime community among the players, and the fact that many are one-sport devotees canvassing the pitch year-round.
“It used to be that a lot of the players would say ‘Hey, I’ll play baseball in the spring and then I’ll play soccer in the fall,’ ” McElroy said. “Now, a lot of these kids play year round and that’s really helped with what I wanted to do — to make it more serious, to push them and challenge them to install structure.”
“We’ve all played with each other for at least three or four years and played a lot,” Elliot said. “That makes us have great team chemistry.”
The best part of the Green Bears’ season so far? They’re only beginning to hit their stride, despite having an unbeaten record through 10 matches.
“Just now, everyone who’s been hurt is getting back from injury and everything’s starting to come together,” Bernardo said. “We’ve only slowly been getting better and better. We’re still not to our peak yet.”
The Green Bears hope that means climbing their way to the ultimate peak in reaching the 25-year-old program’s first state title.
“We got a taste of what [getting to regionals] feels like,” said Elliot, “and I think that’s our objective. Going undefeated is a good thing, but going further in the tournament is even better.”
“I think we’re better than we were last year,” Bernardo said, “and if we keep playing the way we’ve been playing, then we definitely should go.”