There’s a good feeling around Cathedral High School boys soccer these days.
The numbers are strong, as is the outlook for the future – and as second-year boys soccer coach Joel Russell sees it, there’s a lot of reason for optimism in the 2021 season.
“I like what I’m seeing,” Russell said. “You just don’t know, but I think there’s some potential.”
The reason for that optimism?
The Irish have a strong core of senior leaders and a strong group of attackers, giving what traditionally is one of the state of Indiana’s top programs a chance to have one of the area’s strongest offenses.
“Our front seven is very dynamic; I’d match us up against just about anybody,” Russell said.
The Irish, who lost in the Class 3A, Section 11 championship game in 2020, went 4-2-1 to start the 2021 season. That came against an early-season schedule that Russell said should get tougher moving forward, with the Irish’s core leadership group – senior captains Alex Russell, Chris Kiki and Trey Heyward – a key thus far and key to the Irish’s hopes as the postseason approaches.
“We’ve got a good mix of senior leadership, which you’ve got to have,” Russell said. “We have three senior captains who are hungry. We lost in the sectional final last year and I think that just left a bad taste in a lot of mouths.
“I’m focused on not just correcting that problem from last year, but how far can we take this thing this year. I dont know what the ceiling is, candidly.”
The Irish’s strong start was a balanced one – with the Irish scoring 28 goals in the first seven games and shutting out four of seven opponents. Russell said defense will remain a focus throughout the season.
“The team that has the lower goals-against average in really any sport is a team that’s always in first place,” Russell said. “We’re really focusing on not giving up goals – and obviously scoring one more than the other team. But how do we give the other team a donut?”
Russell said the Irish’s strength without question is the front seven, a group that includes senior attacker Kiki, junior attacker Josh Wesseling and “very talented” freshman attacker Cal Kurzawa. Wesseling led the Irish in scoring through six games, with Russell saying Kiki consistently has shown the ability to spread teams out and get behind defenses.
“We’ve got a really exciting attacking team,” he said. “Those top three are an exciting trio.”
The Irish are also led by senior midfielders Luke Hern (three-year varsity starter) and Will Baker (two-year varsity starter, along with junior midfielder Ayrton Graziano and sophomore Belachew Neal. Junior Candler Johnson also will play a key role in the midfield, with Russell (three-year starter) and Heyward keying the defense.
“It’s an exciting group attacking, but me being a defensive coach I always want to see how we’re doing on defense,” Russell said. “I like our defense. Don’t get me wrong. We have really good statistics, but man are we fun to watch up top.
“We’ve got weapons up top. As a coach, I have to look at what we have and say, ‘What’s the best recipe for success?’ I’ve looked around. I think we can score on just about anybody. The question is, ‘How can we defend?’ This year, we need to outscore teams.”
The Irish’s positive outlook for 2021 reflects a strong outlook for the program overall. Russell, who said he has leaned heavily on Irish football coach Bill Peebles while building the program, said 25 percent more players tried out for the program compared to last season – and added that all three levels of the program this season have full rosters.
The Irish also in 2021 feature a strong freshman class, including eight or nine year-round players and a slew of players with starting and contributing potential throughout the program.
“We’ve patterned our program after our football team in a lot of ways where it’s applicable,” Russell said, adding that the coaching staff largely has been overhauled in the last two seasons and now includes eight coaches. “Last spring, we had offseason workouts for the first time. We worked on technical ability with players: dribbling, passing and receiving. We’re seeing dividends. From a program perspective, I’m excited that we’re implementing a lot of those things.
“When you look at what next year, the next year and the year after look like, I think we’re putting the foundation together. I want to be the state of Indiana’s top soccer program.”