With eight players returning from a team that finished fourth in the state in 2019, the West Liberty High School boys soccer team can’t wait to get back on the field this season – especially after having to sit out a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Five seniors and three juniors return from a talented team that lost just five seniors and second-year veteran coach Walton Ponce says his team is dreaming big this season. “The way our season ended two years ago being so close when we last played high school soccer in the state semifinals, we crave and want to have that shot to win the state title.”
The coach said he visualizes that goal as being “realistic” and said, “we will do all we can to have the opportunity to do so.”
The Comets went into the post season with an 8-7 record in 2019 and after defeating Columbus Junction 2-0 in the opening round of Class 1A sub-state, and then bettering Holy Trinity Catholic 4-0, the team beat a 17-1 Burlington Notre Dame in a 2-1 overtime battle in the sub-state finals to get to the state tournament in Des Moines.
The Comets finished fourth in the eight-team state tourney at Cownie Soccer Field with a 12-9 record, taking down top seed North Polk Alleman 4-2 in the opening round before losing to Iowa City Regina 3-1 after breaking a 1-1 tie by scoring twice on technical foul kicks and after West Liberty lost star Carlos Altondo due to injury more than halfway into the game. The team ended their season when they lost the third place game to Sioux Center, 2-1, in overtime.
Ponce said he recognized a lot of talent in the Comets when he first came to West Liberty in 2019 and said that season was about “changing the culture right away.”
The coach said a sees a lot of great potential in this year’s Comet team as well and said setting high standards and goals will continue to be expectations for the team going into the 2021 season that begins this Thursday, April 1, when the team goes to Muscatine for a 4 p.m. outing at the Muscatine Soccer Complex.
“I know we are setting a high bar, but we are backing it up with the amount of work being put into the program from the bottom up,” Ponce said.
The coach said he doesn’t take practices lightly. “I really enjoy preparing my training sessions focusing on having the players ‘playing the game’ within the exercises regardless of the exercise or space. “This pushes the players to focus on the speed of play and also emphasizes the importance of technique all throughout which is critical for our playing style,” he said.
The coach says he’s very specific about details when training his team. “The little things matter in this sport and I want to embrace that focus,” Ponce said. “I like to build relationships with each player and the team and I want to transmit my passion and desire in soccer and outside of soccer to each player and set that as an expectation in order to have a successful program.”
Ponce said he’s never looking too far ahead on the season. “We have to get better a game, a practice, a day at a time,” he said. “We need to know our end goal and use it as motivation to improve, but we need to know that we have to work in order to reach our peak level when it’ll really matter.”
Those eight returning players from the 2019 team include seniors Ronald Guzman, Israel Gomez, Josh Mateo, Julian Alarado and Kevin Martinez. Juniors Jahsiah Galvan, Bryan Martinez and Adrian Frausto round out that list.
Other members of the team include Jaun Mateo, Alexis Garcia, Dominic Hernandez, Pascual Pedro, Ruben Meaz, Diego Hernandez, Diago Sanchez, Israel Gomez, Juan Bautista and David Molina.
The coach said the team is anxious for the season, noting it hasn’t taken much to get them motivated to train daily for the season, noting his team is “looking forward to getting better” and are “wanting to endure the process” with rigorous practices.
The coach says the boys didn’t give up on soccer in the off-season. “Pretty much every player on our varsity roster has been playing at the club level since the two years high school soccer has been absent,” he said, noting that has helped develop not only individuals, but the group as a whole. “The boys are more than excited and looking forward though on getting our high school team back into action,” Ponce said.
The coach said he’s also beefed up the team’s schedule this year to play a lot of 2A and 3A schools, challenging his team to get better. He said Iowa City Regina “has been the most prized team in our (River Valley) conference for many years,” giving “all due respect” to the rest of the conference. He said the Comets recognize the talented Regina program and said his team’s “objective is to fight for that spot in the conference for years to come.”
Assisting Ponce this season are coaches Jose Ayala and Raul Hernandez.
The team follows it’s opener with a pair of home meets against Prince of Peace on Monday, April 5 as well as Cedar Valley Christian on Thursday, April 8.
Tipton hosts the Comets on April 9 before the team hosts Davenport Assumption on April 13 and then travels to Central Dewitt on April 16. A home game with West Branch is slated for April 19 before Marquette Catholic of Bellevue hosts the team on April 23.
Three straight home outings with Cascade on April 27, Columbus on April 29 and Clear Creek Amana on May 3 come next before the Comets go on the road to Clinton on May 7 and battle at Mid-Prairie on May 11. The regular season ends with two home outings against Anamosa on May 14 and Davenport North on May 18.
Sub-state quarterfinals are set for May 20 with the state championship set June 5.