Occupying the top spot in the rankings early in a season is a responsibility many teams do not desire. The Stillwater boys’ soccer team, however, welcomed the opportunity to start last week atop the Class 2A coaches poll.

A 8-0 start to the season with five shutouts brought the Ponies attention they have no intention of dodging. Rankings matter, coach Jake Smothers told his team.

“He told us we should take it as a good thing because we will get the best from other teams and ultimately that will prepare us for October,” sophomore Spencer Scott said.

Handling success requires maturity. And these players, many drawing from a wealth of varsity and club soccer experience, are playing a smarter, more controlled style.

“A lot of it is reminding them of what they’ve been taught,” Smothers said. “In pressure situations, they’ve been more proactive and less reactive. That’s made a difference in the way we’ve been able to avoid defensive lapses and close out games.”

The results show the difference. A year ago, Stillwater played to a draw in six matches. This year the Ponies are seeing victories through.

“Last year we were close enough to tie games but, this year, we’ve got the right group of guys to get us over the edge and turn those ties into wins,” senior Patrick Allan said.

Losses last season to Wisconsin teams Cedarburg and Brookfield East — Stillwater did not lose a regular season game to a Minnesota team in 2015 — also have been avenged. Senior Colman Farrington felt relief in his team’s seven-goal outburst against Cedarburg as scoring chances became goals instead of near-misses.

“That game showed me and the team that we can finish our chances,” Farrington said.

Farrington helps make Stillwater’s midfield its strength. Fellow seniors Mason Bartosh and Kohei Adams, who transferred from Woodbury in the offseason, set the pace.

“The midfield really makes the back line’s job easier,” said Allan, an outside back who sometimes moves up to become a fourth midfielder.

Allan provides a defensive presence while Adams (eight goals) and Farrington (five) contribute to the offense.

Up front, fresh horses have paced the Ponies’ attack. Miguel Caravais (five goals) is an exchange student from Spain while Scott (three goals) is playing his first year of high school soccer after playing football.

“I played club soccer with some of the guys, and I heard they were going to have a really good team,” Scott said. “I wanted an opportunity to be part of a team that could contend for a state title.”

Last year Stillwater fell in the Section 4 semifinals to eventual state runner-up East Ridge. A Suburban East Conference showdown on Sept. 8 saw the Ponies escape with an overtime victory on Scott’s goal.

Additional tests remain against Roseville, North St. Paul and Minneapolis Southwest. Those opponents would love to knock Stillwater from its perch. Challenge accepted.

“Being No. 1 is awesome but we’re not letting it interfere with how we’re thinking about the rest of the season,” Farrington said. “Our preparation has been the same. We have to come out with everything we have every game — that’s the mentality we need to keep our spot.”