After placing fourth at state last season, the Dodge City High School boys soccer team returns only one starter from last year.
That doesn’t mean this team won’t be dangerous, head coach Saul Hernandez said.
"This group's a hard-working group,” Hernandez said. “I’ve been here, this is my fourth year, and in the summer as far as weights and conditioning and showing up for practices during the summer, this group's the one that's showed up to the most.”
Attendance numbers in the weight room over the summer illustrated just how different things were.
"Consistently in the weight room (there were) at least 40 boys every day, Monday through Thursday almost the whole summer,” Hernandez said. “The year before was only two, so it's a hard-working group and the tournaments we went to we were competitive.”
Chemistry isn’t quite there, but near the end of the summer the team started to click, Hernandez said. By midseason, the team should be at the level of lay it wants to be, he said.
Despite the lack of returning starters, some of the seniors on this year’s team made some unexpectedly big improvements, Hernandez said.
They’ve also shown leadership, and the way they have taken some of the younger players under their wings have left Hernandez thinking there could be something special this year with this group, he said.
After losing in the State Semifinals last season, the Red Demons coaching staff played a lot of players who hadn’t seen a lot of varsity time throughout the season.
“There's 22 guys in varsity, there was about 14, 15 that were regulars, so we gave the other seven, eight guys a chance, and those are the guys that are stepping up,” Hernandez said. “So now we're starting to see the fruits of that chance that we took in the third-place game last year."
It was a risk, but a calculated one.
"It was a gamble, we lost that game 3-0, but I think in the long run, because most of those guys are sophomores this year, I think in long run it's gonna benefit us more than what a third place finish would have given us,” Hernandez said.
It was the second time in his tenure as head coach that Hernandez and his staff had done that. The first time they did it, the Red Demons still ended up winning the third-place game, by a score of 4-1 over Olathe East.
"My first year here, when I got here, we had a good core of sophomores but some of those sophomores they weren't getting playing time,” Hernandez said. “We lost the semifinal, so I gave those guys a chance that didn't play the semifinal game to play in the third place game. It was a different result, but it gave them the experience for the next year, when we eventually won State.”
As the Red Demons gear up for their Aug. 25 season-opener at home against Wichita South, Hernandez said the team chemistry the group needs will only be developed by playing other teams.
“I can do as much as I can and the coaches as much as we can during practice, but the chemistry's gonna come when they're on the field together playing against other guys against other schools,” Hernandez said. “That's where it's gonna come from, is it's gonna be from experience.”
The Red Demons take on the Wichita South Titans at 6 p.m. Aug. 25 in Dodge City’s Memorial Stadium.