Champlin Park heads into this week's Class 2A boys' soccer state tournament unbeaten. Senior defender Josh Eckhardt practically blushed when informed of his role.
"His resiliency is breathtaking," Rebels coach Gavin Pugh said. "He tracks down plays and is the heart of our defense. He is someone we'd be significantly worse off without."
Told about Pugh's comments, Eckhardt paused and said, "I'm flattered my coach would say that."
High-praise is warranted. The Rebels (16-0-1) have allowed only 15 goals and just one in the section playoffs. They are the No. 1 seed in the state tournament and open with Blaine at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Park of Cottage Grove High School.
Eckhardt spoke with Star Tribune reporter David La Vaque about facing adversity, encouraging teammates before a shootout and accepting the pressure of going to state undefeated.
Q As you look back on your unbeaten season, what stands out?
A Our tie with Park Center because it's a mark on our record. Everybody wishes we could go back and play differently. Another game that stood out was Blaine because we were down 2-0 at half, but we kept our heads up and scored five goals in the second half.
Q It's interesting you mentioned these games because something I wonder about teams in your situation is whether players have experienced enough adversity to prepare them for the playoffs. It sounds like you had your share.
A Yeah, everyone treated the Park Center game like a loss. We were down on ourselves for settling for a tie and that got us back on track. And I think Blaine, being our last game before the postseason, showed us what we can do when we put our minds to playing the best we can. We've had slipups that helped us check ourselves and gave us things to work on.
Q Talk about your two-overtime battle with Spring Lake Park in the section semifinals.
A They played a heck of a game. I don't think we expected them to play as hard as they did. But our defense stepped up and carried us through. It showed the resilience of our team to carry on and keep pushing.
Q Then you went to penalty kicks in the final with Mounds View. Did you participate?
A We start with five. I was sixth if they needed me. But I think part of the reason [co-captain] Logan Burchill and myself were out there was to help encourage the boys who did have to take the PKs.
Q So if I'm one of the guys having to shoot, what am I getting from you in terms of encouragement?
A Well, we're all pretty close so I probably would have given you a back massage.
Q Seriously? That's funny.
A Yeah, we're a pretty close group. We keep each other loose.
Q Champlin Park will be the undefeated team everyone is watching at state. How are those expectations sitting with your guys?
A Everybody is really handling it well. But we're not letting it go to our head. We're treating it like another game and trying not to let the pressure get to us. We have a lot of returning players who are seniors so that, plus being involved in tight games, will really help us at state.
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574