Fast, inspired soccer on the field. Players standing on the bench yelling support. If a season opener could match a section playoff game for atmosphere, Park Center’s game against North St. Paul came close.
For Park Center, a Class 2A tournament team last season with nine returning senior regulars, playing with the same determination shown in a 2-1 victory against a talented Polars team is a season-long goal.
“We all know it’s not just going to be given to us,” senior defender Brenton Brakke said. “But I think our team, if we’re willing to work at it, can do whatever we set out to do.”
The Pirates are loaded with familiar faces but in many ways are starting fresh. Some high school soccer teams stick together in large numbers on offseason club teams. Not Park Center. Brakke played with only two Pirates teammates during the summer, making reconnection necessary at the start of fall camp.
And important roles must be filled. All-State forward and leading scorer Sam Moses graduated while midfielder Gabriel Vasquez left high school soccer to play with an academy team.
“Last year we would get the ball to Sam and if that didn’t work, we didn’t have much else,” Brakke said. “Hopefully this year we will have a more diversified attack.”
Junior forward Justin Naklen and senior forward Clement Kamara showcased their abilities by each scoring a goal against North St. Paul. Applying pressure on the ball like Moses did last year, Naklen produced the game’s first goal. Kamara made it 2-0 with a great shot from just outside the 18-yard box.
“I think our overall pace is a little faster this year,” said senior Fuad Tahir, an all-conference honorable mention last season at midfield. “We can really put pressure on the defense.”
The all-senior back line, led by all-conference selection Brakke, is the Pirates’ strength. Jet Thepanonxay was an all-conference honorable mention last season, Chad Corby returns and Sam Dixon, a part-time midfielder last season, impressed against a North St. Paul team featuring strong offensive players Ataniel Claremond and Gladymir Jeudi.
“Sam was great,” said senior goalkeeper Salvador Salado. “I think the defense and goaltending is a strength of our team because a lot of us started as sophomores.”
Reflecting on the North St. Paul game, Salado said, “Both teams were going at it. There was never a pause in that game.”
One game, even against a quality opponent, is a small sample size from which to project season-long success — especially in the rugged Northwest Suburban Conference, home of two-time Class 2A champion Anoka. Players know many challenges await.
“It’s the deepest conference in the state,” Tahir said. “It’s full of teams who are talented and who come out every game and give their best.”
“Everyone on the team has the mind-set of getting to the state final,” he said. “We have to keep working game by game to reach our goal.”