Ordinarily, prep soccer teams are supposed to take a step back when they lose one of the top scorers in the state.
Don’t tell that to the West Liberty High School boys’ soccer team.
The Comets don’t want to hear it, as they are steadfast in their belief that the team can not only make it back to the state tournament, where West Liberty made it to the semifinals in Class 1A behind leading scorer Jahsiah Galvan, who’s now playing football at the University of Northern Iowa.
“Jahsiah was a beast, just a freak of nature that we were fortunate to have,” said head coach Walton Ponce. “But I’ll tell you, I don’t think we’re going to miss a beat. We have some freshmen that are going to come in and play right away and be ready."
"There’s four classes for soccer now (in the past there’s been just three), that doesn’t make things much easier for us, we’ll still have to go through a lot of private schools that have done well. But I think we have a special team this year. The bar hasn’t been lowered one bit. We’ve been to three state semifinals since I’ve been here, and we want to get over that hump.”
A two-time all-stater, Galvan was among Iowa's most prolific scorers as a junior and senior, scoring 67 goals and adding 31 assists over those two seasons.
“That’s big,” senior Joshua Zeman said. “Jahsiah was a big part of our team. But we have experienced guys. We’ll obviously have to play a different style (without him), but I don’t think we’ll see any drop in quality or goals scored. We’ll be just fine there, we’ll just do it in a different, more balanced, spread out way.
“The community shows that they love us, and that alone gives us a big boost in confidence.”
But the West Liberty program has set a standard of itself that’s bigger than any individual loss.
“The seniors have been (to state) twice now, so that’s the expectation,” Ruben Meraz said.
The program keeps churning out winners while experiencing roster turnover on a constant basis, as all high school teams do.
Plus, the team does return three of its top four scorers from a year ago, with Galvan the only of that group not back.
Juan Mateo accounted for 13 goals and 10 assists last season while Zeman went for 11 goals and four assists and Diego Hernandez, a Wartburg College soccer recruit, scored five goals with seven assists. All are back for their senior seasons.
The Comets also return both goaltenders that saw time in the net in 2021. Senior Ruben Meraz saw 880 minutes in goal as a junior while David Hernandez tended goal for 375 minutes as a freshman in 2022. Both allowed 14 goals apiece, and Meraz made a team-high 36 saves.
West Liberty also likes the group of underclassmen it has coming up, and has another distinct advantage over much of its opposition.
Almost the entire team is bilingual, meaning you’re just as likely to hear the coaches and players speak to each other in Spanish as you are to hear them in English.
“There’s about two players that don’t speak Spanish out of 17,” Zeman said. “And both of them know some of the basics. Sometimes, we’ll go a full game speaking only in Spanish.”
“Last year (at state against Nevada), they were so confused trying to understand what we were saying,” said Mateo. “Their players kept asking me during the game, ‘What are you guys saying?’”
West Liberty is in the midst of quite a run, with only the COVID-19 pandemic canceled season of 2020 interrupting the Comets’ streak of state tournament appearances that dates back to 2019.
Moreover, the Comets reached state three times from 2012 to 2016, and in its most recent stretch, the team has advanced to the state semifinals ‘19, ‘21 and ‘22.
“We set our expectations high,” Hernandez said. “We’re shooting for our No. 1 goal, which is to win a state title. It feels like (the seniors) are the big brothers of the group and we’re trying to motivate the rest of the guys. We have a responsibility to represent the community. We take pride in that. It’s bigger than just the players on the team.”
And the senior class is taking its responsibility to not only continue the streak seriously, but to use this season to further progress the program so that the next generation will be even more hungry to be a part of a winning club.
“We want to take the lessons we’ve learned throughout the success that we’ve had and show the younger generation what it takes and who we want them to be when they get into high school,” said Zeman.
“Ever since we were little, the goal was to get to this day,” Mateo said. “We’re here now, it’s just the matter of finishing it the way we want to.”